Archivist Note: There is a tiny crossover in the middle of the story, but it is just basically using some characters from another of the author's fandoms.
Pushing his hat further back on his head, Ezra raised his face to the sky, enjoying the feel of the sun on his face. He'd never admit it, but he rather enjoyed being on horseback during fine weather, enjoyed the heat of the sunlight and the feel of a fresh breeze on his skin. He leaned forward and patted Chaucer's neck. The price he paid for keeping his pleasure private was that he couldn't share it with any of his friends.
Friends. He could try to lie to himself, attempt to maintain a semblance of distance by referring to them as his colleagues or associates, but he knew the truth. He was no longer just passing through Four Corners, amusing himself by pretending to be a peace keeper instead of lawbreaker. He was settled into his life in the dusty little town. It was an odd place for a self-declared urbanite to find a home but he'd admitted the reality to himself: he was happy in his life here. Playing poker with the ranch hands and townsmen - and gently fleecing them - and patrolling the streets and outlying countryside were no longer chores to be performed until he could move onto greener pastures. They had become vital parts of the new rhythm of his life.
Even more necessary to his happiness were the six men he'd come to call friends during his time living in Four Corners. He hadn't begun his association with them expecting to make friends. He'd just been looking for a way to buy himself a little breathing room until he could make an unobtrusive exit from town. After the battle at the Seminole village, though, he hadn't moved on. At first he'd told himself that he was only going to stay long enough to build up a nice stake for himself, cheerfully separating people from their money until he was flush and ready to move on. But he'd stayed for a week, and then another, and then he'd been in town for months and still had no plans to move on.
Working as a part of a team was an entirely new experience for Ezra. Running a con with Maude had only the most passing resemblance to cooperation. Trusting other people to guard his back, relying on them with the same faith with which he relied on himself...the very idea was foreign to his world-view, contradictory to his whole way of living. He'd slowly found himself more and more a natural part of the group of seven, earning trust as they earned his. Now that he'd discovered how it felt to belong he didn't want to return to his former way of life, drifting from town to town in a completely solitary existence. He wanted to stay in Four Corners and he wanted the other men to stay as well.
An entirely unsuitable grin tugged at his lips and the green-eyed man forcibly schooled his features. If he let himself get into the habit of smiling over nothing, he was going to give his secret away. That would ruin the entire surprise he had planned. He wanted the surprise to be perfect, to catch all of his friends off guard and please them. If in the process he convinced them to stay in Four Corners and preserve the happiness he'd found, what could it hurt?
The smile snuck back as the thought of one man staying made his heart give a strange double beat. He closed his eyes for a moment, allowing the steady rhythm of Chaucer's gate to sooth him as he summoned up a memory: blue eyes squinting into the setting sun as the last dying rays of day light burnished blond hair golden red, as shadows pooled around a battered black duster and claimed the lean figure as their own.
Ezra's smile turned somewhat wistful as he opened his eyes. He didn't know when he'd fallen in love with Chris. It didn't really matter. He'd fallen and there was nothing he could do to change that so he just accepted it. He'd resigned himself to pining for the gunslinger until his foolish heart finally realized the uselessness of its longings. He convinced himself that having Chris's friendship was enough, that just being trusted by the other man would sustain him until the attraction faded. For months, it had been enough for him.
The change in his relationship with Chris had occurred so slowly at first Ezra believed that it was more the result of his own wishful thinking then any sort of reality. Instead of ignoring Ezra's sly aside comments, Chris began to agree with them, sometimes laughing quietly at the soft-spoken jibes. They were partnered more and more often on patrols, and instead of following the usual pattern of Ezra lamenting being away from town while Chris made comments about duty, they talked. Politics, local characters, books, horses, guns: their talks ranged over all topics. Chris had even begun to seek him out in the saloon when they were both in town, joining him in playing poker or just talking late into the night.
It was a small beginning. Ezra knew that it wasn't much; it wasn't as though Chris had declared undying love, or even declared definite interest. Ezra prided himself on being able to read people, on being able to see deeper than others and understand the hidden reasons that guided people's actions. If his heart wasn't misleading him, then Chris was reaching out to him, opening up to him in a way that he hadn't done with any of the other men. Taking a chance with his heart, Ezra had decided to believe that Chris shared his feelings and that all the casual encounters and shared duties were the blue-eyed man's way of expressing his interest. To be taking so much trouble to get to know Ezra better meant hat Chris was interested in more than just a casual encounter.
Ezra reached inside his jacket, fingers brushing over the papers concealed within. Gathering his resolution, he forced the smile from his lips once more. He'd soon be back in Four Corners; it wasn't a long ride back from the town of Lone Pine. A good thing, since he'd ridden back and forth between the two so often, preparing his surprise.
Resettling his hat on his head, Ezra urged Chaucer to a faster pace. The sooner he returned to Four Corners, the sooner he could reveal the surprise, the sooner he could help ensure that the other six men remained in town.
The sooner he and Chris could move beyond just a beginning.
Chris rapped his knuckles twice against the wooden door of the newspaper office, then pushed it open. He'd learned early on it was a good idea to check in Mary Travis at least once a day if he wanted to be sure to head off trouble before it had a chance to get good and started in Four Corners. Besides, if she was upset about something then the scolding and reprimands he'd receive would take up a long chunk of the day that he would otherwise spend thinking about Ezra.
Like he just did. He didn't know what the gambler was getting up to on his mysterious little solitary trips out of town, but Chris didn't like it. It wasn't that he didn't trust Ezra; the other man had earned his trust a hundred times over. He just didn't like not having him in town, resented missing any time that he could potentially spend with him.
He'd been confused by the southerner at first. The man never used one word when he could use five, and each of those five words were likely to come straight out of a fancy play. He was cynical and superior and he always had an eye firmly fixed on the main chance. He denied having interest in other people, yet took insane chances with his life in defense of others. He squirmed and complained viciously about having to perform any sort of physical task, but his body was toned and muscled, belying those protests. His green eyes were closely shuttered, but every so often a real flash of emotion could be seen in them, as startling and pleasing as the flash of gold in his smile.
Chris caught the direction his thoughts were taking and shook his head. Those were exactly the thoughts he wanted to avoid. He wasn't going to sit and brood and wait for Ezra to return. Turning into a miserable son of a bitch wasn't a part of his plan for the day. He made his way back to Mary's office, stopping short in the doorway when he saw she had company: a quietly weeping woman and a grim-faced man. Both had dark hair and eyes and were wearing neat but plain clothing. The woman was seated in the chair facing Mary's desk while the man stood behind her. "Mary?" he said softly, not wanting to intrude but wanting to offer his help if was needed.
Mary transferred her attention to him. "Mr. Larabee!" Her expression was troubled, sorrowful. "I think you should hear this."
Entering the room, Chris nodded at the two strangers. "Ma'am, sir, I'm Chris Larabee. If you like, I can find the sheriff for you."
"I think you should hear what they have to say first." Mary stared at him seriously.
"All right." What was this?
The woman brushed away tears with a damp handkerchief. "Mr. Larabee, I do help you can help us. My name is Lisa Harlon and this is my brother Steven. We're in such terrible trouble and it's all because I've been an awful fool!"
Steven reached out and laid his hands on his sister's shoulders. "I trusted him too, Lisa. It's both our faults. You can't blame yourself."
"Trusted who?" Chris tried to rein in his impatience. He needed answers if he was going to be able to do anything to help them.
"Eric Simpson," Lisa said. "The man who talked us out of all our money. The man who left us penniless." Tears beginning to fall once more, she continued. "We met him in Andersonville."
Chris nodded. He knew the place - it was only a few hours of hard riding away.
"He seemed so nice, so charming. He offered to tell us all about the area and help us get settled - he said it was his duty to help nice folks like us get set up here in town, because he wanted to have nice people around to associate with. He found out that we didn't have much money, so he told us that he could help us invest it."
He'd heard of the scam before. Chris didn't need to hear any more of the story - it was familiar to everyone with any experience in the West. Trusting greenhorns giving their money to a swindler who promises to help them, but instead disappeared, leaving them with nothing. Already knowing what she was going to say, he nodded for her to continue.
"He was so nice and he knew so much. I gave him the money and he promised that we'd make so much money and that we'd be able to start wonderful lives here out west. But then..." She began to cry again.
"Then he disappeared," Chris said. "Disappeared with your money."
Steven nodded. "Exactly. We didn't know what to do, or how to find him. I remembered him mentioning this town once though, so we took the little money we had left and came here, hoping that maybe someone knows him or how we can find him."
"He won't have told you his real name. What does he look like?" Chris was running the list of recent visitors through his mind. Maybe he noticed the man when he was in town.
"He's not all that tall. He has reddish blond hair and green eyes." Lisa's tears slowed to a stop.
"He's from the south," Steven added. "This might help: he's got a gold tooth."
Chris felt physically sick. Oh, he could tell them who it had been. There was only one person in the area who fit the description.
Eric Simpson. E. S. Ezra Standish.
The Harlons weren't fools. He was. He knew Ezra, knew what kind of man he was, knew that he was a liar and a thief. He'd seen the man play fast and loose with the law and with people's lives for his own gain. Hell, Ezra had run out on them at the Seminole village.
Chris had allowed himself to forget that. He'd convinced himself that Ezra had changed, that there was more to him than the careless exterior that he showed the world. He had allowed himself to be lulled by the hints of laughter in mysterious green eyes, had trusted in the soft-spoken voice that had sounded like it was confiding secrets to him when they talked long into the night at a table Chris had come think of as theirs. He had forgotten everything he'd known about Ezra in favor of listening to the hopes of his heart. He had tried to open up to the gambler, wanting to win the right to know Ezra's secrets by sharing his own.
Fool. He had been so blind, so stupidly trusting.
"Mr. Larabee?" Mary's soft voice broke into his reverie. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he said, unable to smooth the roughness out of his voice. He turned his attention to Lisa Harlon. "How much did he take from you?"
"Almost two hundred dollars," she said. "Oh, Mr. Larabee, can you help us?"
"I'll see what I can do." He turned and left quickly. As he walked back out onto the street, rage began to build inside of him. Ezra was still conning people; he'd just done so while away from the watchful eyes of the six other guardians of Four Corners. He'd lied to all of them, pretending to have given up his dishonest ways and embraced his life as a peace keeper.
He'd especially lied to Chris. All those late night talks, all those quiet patrols together when Ezra had confessed in a shy voice that he was actually happy staying in the slowly growing town, all of them had been lies. Ezra had been putting on an act, deliberately lying to Chris in order to cover his continuing crimes. He'd lead Chris on, making him believe that there was true friendship between them.
Making him believe that there could be something more. Making him believe that his feelings were returned.
The gunslinger clenched his hands into fists in order to hide the way they trembled in rage. He headed for the livery at the other end of town. He could track Ezra down, follow Chaucer's tracks and find out where the gambler was cheating people that day. Find him and make him pay for what he'd done.
Movement caught his attention and his eyes narrowed as a familiar red jacket came into view. He hurried his pace, gaze pinned on the man riding back into town. As he approached the stable, he was able to clearly see the way Ezra was smiling to himself. He looked satisfied. Smug.
Chris's fingernails bit into the palms of his hands. Bastard.
Ezra swung down out of the saddle, still unaware of Chris's presence. He patted Chaucer's neck as he led him toward the livery.
"Afternoon, Ezra," Vin said, stepping out of the shadowed interior of the stables. "Have a good ride?"
"Yes, Mr. Tanner. A most enjoyable and profitable excursion."
The self-satisfaction in his voice was too much to bear. Chris closed the distance between them in seconds. He must have made some sort of noise, because Ezra turned around to face him as he approached. The green-eyed man smiled as he caught sight of Chris. "Mr. Larabee."
That deceitful smile was the final straw. Not waiting to hear anymore lies from Ezra, Chris erased the smile with his fist.
Ezra slowly curled his fingers into fists, dragging them through the dirt in the street. He could feel the grit moving over his skin, smell the dust. The dirt was real, so the pain in his jaw was real. The man staring down at him with fury and hatred was real.
"What? Chr-Mr. Larabee?" He stared up at the man in black. He thought that perhaps he should feel anger, perhaps fear, but all he was aware of was confusion.
Vin hovered off to the side, clearly unsure of whom to try to help. "What's going on?"
"That is what I would like to know." Ezra slowly got to his feet, half fearing another attack.
Chris shook his head. "Get to your feet. I wouldn't want to lay hands on you. I don't want my hands to be any dirtier than they already are."
Ezra flinched. The disgust in Chris's voice was worse than a blow. Ezra shook his head. He'd been out of town; what could he have done to upset Chris when he hadn't even been here? His hands straightened the line of his jacket and brushed the dust from his pants, automatic gestures while his mind raced. Could Chris have found out the purpose behind his frequent visits to Lone Pine? But why would that have upset him? Vin's hesitation indicated that the tracker was confused as well.
Still trying to figure out how he should react, Ezra allowed his gaze to shift past Chris and scan the main street of Four Corners, searching for answers in the shadowed doorways and uneven sidewalks. Movement near Mrs. Travis's office caught his attention. A man and a woman walked up the sidewalk, approaching even as they watched the three men in the street with avid eyes. Ezra knew them, recognized them even with the briefest of glances. Despair coursed through him as he closed his eyes.
"Look at me." Chris's voice was low and thick with rage. He glanced over his shoulder, catching the direction of Ezra's gaze, then turned his glare back upon the gambler.
Ezra reluctantly turned his gaze to him. He kept his features blank only through the experience of long practice. He couldn't react, not while he had an audience. Not while the revelation of his feelings would bring such pleasure to the people who had caused them. He made himself go numb, allowing icy unconcern to overwhelm his emotions. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"You almost fooled me. I really had begun to think that you had changed, that you gave a damn about the people of this town and the men in it who called you friend. Because you may have meant some of what you pretended, I'll give you until tonight to find the money you owe those people. I want it in my hands by sundown. After that, you'll have to talk to the others and see what they have to say about this." He stared at Ezra for a moment longer before shaking his head in a gesture of profound disgust and walking away in the opposite direction.
Ignoring Vin's bewildered concern, Ezra forced his legs to steadiness he didn't feel and walked immediately to the saloon, heading up the stairs to his room. Once the door was shut behind him, he could finally allow himself to react, allow himself to feel. All the strength he'd willed to his legs left him and he sank down onto his bed. He dropped his head to his hands, hiding his face even though there was no one there to see.
Laura and Samuel. He should have known. He'd gotten soft, grown weak. He'd half-convinced himself that they wouldn't find him. He was in a place where he was happy and felt almost as though he belonged and he'd believed that feeling would somehow protect him from them. He was a fool. He should have known that their hatred ran too deep. They'd never let him be. They'd tracked him to Four Corners, intent on driving him from this town as they'd driven him from so many others. If he was to follow the usual pattern, he'd be out of town by nightfall, disappearing with a new name to a new town in order to leave them behind.
He didn't want to go. Four Corners was his home now and he didn't want lies to drive him away. He would miss the people and the friends he had made, the closest thing to a family he'd know in far too long a time. He hadn't done anything wrong; he wasn't a thief to sneak away in the night. He was one of the peacekeepers in Four Corners. He had a place and a role and a man he with whom he had fallen in love.
Ezra straightened, running a smoothing hand over his hair. He allowed anger to fill him. Cold calculation couldn't save him now. Reason and habit demanded that he leave and start fresh, avoid all the effort it would take to convince Chris and the others that Laura and Samuel, or whatever they were calling themselves, were no helpless victims. It would be easier to just leave and begin again with the stake he'd built for himself here.
Not this time. This time, he was going to ignore the dictates of experience and fight for his place. He wasn't going to be run off, not by two cut-rate amateurs and not by Chris's suspicious nature. He wasn't willing to give up on Four Corners or on Chris. Rising to his feet, he went to his closet and changed his clothes. He needed to be ready for the confrontation and that meant he couldn't be wearing the same garb as when he'd been knocked down into the dirt. He washed his face and hands, then placed his hat on his head. He considered his reflection in the mirror. His clothing was once more immaculate, his face clean. His eyes were perhaps over bright, but that couldn't be helped.
Walking down the stairs and out of the saloon, Ezra ignored the curious looks that followed him. Time enough to deal with that later, after he'd salvaged his place with the rest of the seven. Once he was seen being accepted by Chris and the others, the townspeople would forget about the falling out, chalking it up to the peculiarity of the peace keepers and putting it out of their minds.
Reaching the street, he glanced first to the right and then the left. Where would Chris be? In Mary's office, or perhaps in Vin's wagon? He didn't want to spend a lot of time searching for him, just in case his courage began to wane. He caught site of a familiar figure outside the sheriff's office. "Mr. Dunne!"
The brown-eyed young man raised a hand in greeting. "Hi, Ezra. What are you doing out here?"
"I've more important matters to worry about this evening than a mere card game and I require your assistance, Mr. Dunne." Ezra watched as JD immediately came to attention, abandoning whatever else may have been on his mind in favor of helping a friend in need. Lord, but he didn't want to lose these men.
"Sure, Ezra. Whatever you need."
"I'm looking for Mr. Larabee. Have you seen him?" Ezra glanced at the sky. He still had a few hours before sunset. He didn't want Chris to try to come looking for him to enforce the deadline he'd imposed. He couldn't look like he was trying to meet that ultimatum. This was about revealing the truth, not cooperating with Laura and Samuel's lies.
"He's in the hotel." JD pointed. "He's having dinner in the restaurant."
"My thanks, Mr. Dunne." Ezra walked down the street, exhuding confidence and nonchalance that he didn't feel. It was an old trick; if he could look the part, then he could be the part. The way he felt didn't really matter so long as he presented the right image. For that reason he sauntered instead of hurrying, strolled instead of running as he heart urged him.
He slowed his pace even further as he approached the restaurant, peering through the dim windows into the interior. He wasn't afraid; it was just sound strategy. A careful tactician always scouted the lay of the land before advancing his troops. What he saw stopped him in the street, frozen and staring through the glass.
Chris leaned further across the small table inside the restaurant, moving so that he could cover the hand of his dining companion with his own. Ezra felt his jaw go slack as he watched Chris smile gently at the woman across from him. When Laura smiled back at Chris, Ezra tore his gaze away, staring blindly out into the street. An exiting patron swung the door open and he caught the faintest trace of Laura's laughter on an errant breeze.
It was too much. Ezra's heart and nerve broke and he scrambled around the corner, hiding himself in the alley. Sour bile filled his mouth and he barely had time to slam an arm up against the wall to support himself as spasms rocked him. He vomited violently, his stomach cramping and nearly driving him to his knees. He was left clinging to the wall, eyes blinded by tears as he was left weak and shaking by the force of the spasms. Sagging against the wall, Ezra spat into the dirt repeatedly, clearing his mouth as best he could.
He should have known. He should have known that Laura would try this. It wasn't enough for her to run him out of town; she had to destroy any chance of him ever coming back to Four Corners. He doubted that she knew how he felt about Chris; she was just working to win him over to her side. No doubt Samuel was working on Mary, as well as persuading Chris that he was everything Ezra wasn't: upstanding and truthful and righteous.
The fact that Chris could so easily believe them cut deeply. For him to be engaged in an intimate dinner with Laura so soon after being told that Ezra had deceived him spoke volumes about how the gunslinger truly felt about him. All the hope and promises Ezra had seen between them had been the figments of his own imagination. He'd been wrong, horribly, delusionally wrong. He'd convinced himself that he had a chance to find love with Chris, that his feelings were returned. He'd opened himself up to hope like a naive little fool who didn't know any better. He should have known that he would reap only pain. If experience had taught him nothing else, it should have taught him that.
Breathing deeply, Ezra forced himself back to his feet. He had no more time for weakness. Pulling his coat tightly around himself he exited the alley, walking swiftly back to the saloon. He ignored all attempts to attract his attention and mounted the stairs, not stopping until he reached his room. He continued to move quickly, concentrating on the completion of tasks rather than their meaning. He packed his best clothing into one saddle bag and his books into a second. The third was reserved for more personal items, keepsakes and toiletries. Finally, he shoved the heavy bureau sideways by a few feet, exposing the false paneling he'd installed a few weeks after settling into Four Corners. He pulled away the false front, revealing the small compartment containing the stake he'd built for himself.
What was left of it after his business in Lone Pine, anyway.
He placed the majority of it inside his shirt, hesitating over how much to leave out. Chris hadn't mentioned how much money he was supposed to have stolen. After deliberating for a few moments, he decided to keep three hundred dollars out. Not even Samuel would dare to claim more than that. He slid the amount into an envelope and then placed the whole thing into one of his trouser pockets.
Glancing around the room, Ezra shook his head. If ten minutes was all it took to pack and prepare for starting a new life, then he hadn't had much of an old life. He slung the bags over his shoulders and left the room, locking it behind himself. He then walked down the back stairs, not wanting his departure to be noticed. He was able to get to the livery without being seen by sticking to the alleys and off the main street. He concealed his bags within Chaucer's stall, then made his way back out to the street.
Light glowed in the window of the sheriff's office and Ezra made it his beacon, mindful of the way the sun hung just above the horizon. He didn't have much time. He knocked on the office door as he opened it and was relieved to find only JD inside. "Mr. Dunne?"
"Hey, Ezra." JD swung his legs down off his desk. "Did you find Chris?"
"I did, thank you." Ezra watched as a smile appeared on the younger man's face. Just knowing he had helped Ezra was enough to bring JD pleasure. The gambler had to leave. He didn't want to see JD look at him with disgust, didn't want to see the honest enjoyment of his company become disgust and loathing.
Didn't want any of the seven to look at him the way Chris had.
"I must request another favor of you," Ezra said, pulling the envelope out of his pocket. "I have some business to attend to tonight; could you see that Mr. Larabee receives this?"
"Sure." JD took the envelope and placed it in his own pocket. "Why didn't you give it to him when you found him?"
"I forgot." Ezra shrugged. "It slipped my mind. Thank you, Mr. Dunne." He fought the urge to linger in the other man's presence. he had to leave before Chris could come looking for him. He had to leave before he had to watch everyone buy into Laura's lies. With a nod, he left the office, returning once more tot he livery.
He quickly saddled Chaucer and packed his saddlebags, hyper aware of each second that passed. Urgency growing within him, he mounted the horse and rode quietly out of town, the last dying rays of sunlight illuminating the way. He rode steadily for several miles, not daring to stop. He feared his own desire to stay and the possibility of Chris following him in equal measures. Only when he knew he was safe from pursuit did he rein Chaucer in and look back. Distant lights were all he could see of Four Corners.
Hand trembling, Ezra raised two fingers to his hat in a salute he knew he would never give again. Blinking rapidly, he set Chaucer to a quick trot heading east.
He didn't look back again.
JD hesitated outside the door to the saloon for a moment, then passed by the door and continued walking down the street to the chair outside his office. He knew he should be checking in on the saloon but he didn't have the will or the inclination to go inside. With Ezra gone, ugly fights had broken out and he and the others had been called upon to break them up.
With Ezra gone. JD sighed heavily as he sat down. He hadn't seen the gambler in three days, not since the night Ezra had given him an envelope for Chris. After that, Ezra had hidden himself away in his room, not coming down at all as far as JD had seen. He would have seen, too: he wanted desperately to talk to Ezra and had been waiting for him to reappear. He couldn't believe what Chris had told him, that Ezra had actually stolen money for that woman. Ezra wasn't like that. He might play a trick on someone, but he always did it for laughter or to protect Four Corners. He didn't con people, not any more. JD wasn't sure he believed Ezra ever did. He'd never seen the gambler deliberately hurt another person and there was no way Ezra was out fleecing newcomers to the west. Ezra was a good man. Ezra was his friend.
He didn't like the way things felt in town, now. The Harlons had left, thanking them all profusely for the return of their money. Their presence lingered and JD thought it was a bad thing. Everyone was edgy now, the sense of brotherhood that they had enjoyed gone with the Harlons. JD caught sight of Vin walking down the street. The tracker didn't even notice him. Instead, Vin' attention was focused on the dark window on the second floor of the saloon building. Ezra's window.
The gambler's absence was a weight bearing down on them all, forcing them to realize just how much a part of their lives he had become. It wasn't just in the saloon, although JD knew that he would never again take for granted Ezra's soothing presence there. No one came into his office in the middle of the afternoon to talk to him, to help explain a book he was reading or tell him stories about living in cities. Josiah didn't have anyone to talk philosophy with and Nathan looked lost without Ezra to argue with over a final drink. There was no one to subtly tease Buck as the taller man teased all the others. Vin had gone almost completely silent and Chris was just another shadow, drifting with silent anger around the town, not allowing anyone to get close to him.
His thoughts making him restless, JD stood up to walk around Four Corners once more. He had to keep himself busy or he'd make himself crazy. He walked the streets, not really wanting to talk to anyone. His wandering steps took him to the livery and he went inside. None of the rest of the Seven had been going out on patrols lately; they'd been gathering together instead, trying to rebuild what had been destroyed with the Harlons' news. It was time to check on the horses. He trusted the hostler, but it was always good to make sure for oneself. He patted his own mount's neck fondly, then quickly checked on the rest of the Seven's horses.
Chaucer was missing.
JD froze for a moment. Swearing under his breath, he ran back to his office. Inside his bottom desk drawer he found the slim packet Ezra had given to him. The gambler had told him to carry it at all times, but he really couldn't see himself needing it so he never got into the habit. Now that he need it, though, he was going to use it. He hid the packet inside his coat and headed for the saloon. As he walked through the bar toward the stairs, he noticed both Josiah and Buck watching over the room. That never would have been necessary with Ezra there.
Once he reached the door to Ezra's room, JD hesitated as he pulled the packet out of his coat. What if Ezra got really mad at him? Fear nearly drove him back down the stairs. It was the weight of the packet in his hand that stopped him. Ezra had cared enough to give him that gift. JD couldn't just go on, not knowing where that friend was. Hell, Ezra could be hurt for all he knew, lying injured in his room while Chaucer had been stolen. JD opened the packet and pulled out the slim tools inside of it.
His very own lockpicks. Ezra would only have himself to blame. He was the one who'd given them to JD, the one who'd spent hours teaching him how to use them. He carefully used the tools to force the lock open, pleased when it yielded to him within a few moments. He tried to keep his mind blank, just like Ezra had taught him, but it was difficult. He refused to think about the possibility that Ezra was gone. The green-eyed man was just hiding in his room. There was some explanation for Chaucer's absence that would make complete sense once he found Ezra and got him talking. He pushed the door open and braced himself for Ezra's yelling.
It never came. JD slowly entered the room, cataloguing all the things that were missing: Ezra's books; his jackets; the small silver case usually found on the dresser. They were all gone.
Not bothering to close the door behind him, JD hurried back down the stairs. "Buck! Where's Chris?"
"I don't know. Try your office. He's been skulking around there lately." Buck half-stood from his chair. "What's up?"
JD shook his head. "I'll tell you later." If he mentioned Ezra's name he was just going to upset Buck and Josiah. No one had taken the gambler's disappearance well; a lot of the laughter had gone out of Buck and Josiah's eyes never strayed far from the stairs, hoping that Ezra would soon appear there. Vin was spending most of his time out of town and Nathan hardly left the clinic any more. Chris seemed to be taking it worst of all. Always inclined to be quiet, Chris had damn near stopped speaking at all. He just stalked through town with a snarl in his eyes and a sneer on his face, daring anyone to get close to him.
JD swallowed hard. He didn't want to tell Chris that Ezra was gone. Right now, the gunslinger was convinced that Ezra was hiding from him. JD didn't know how he'd react to finding out that Ezra had actually left town. He steeled himself and reached for the door handle to his office.
The sound of footsteps behind him stilled his movements. He turned to see who was coming, vaguely ashamed of the relief that welled up inside of him at the chance to delay talking to Chris. He nodded at the man approaching him. "Can I help you?"
"You the sheriff?" The man paused, running his hand over his light hair.
"I am. Who are you?"
"Name's Rifkin. I live over in Lone Pine. I'm doing a favor for a friend; he asked me to do him a favor and drop this off." He held out an envelope.
"What is it?" It was light; there was a letter in it, perhaps.
"I don't know. He just asked me to get it to the sheriff of Four Corners."
JD looked down at the letter in his hands again and when he looked up, the man was gone. Ignoring the door to his office, JD sat down in the chair off to the side. He might as well find out what was in the envelope. He tore it open and found two pieces of paper inside. One looked like some kind of legal document; the other was a letter. JD read the document first and the letter second.
After he was finished he stuffed the papers back into the envelope, stood up and flung open the door to his office. He saw Chris leaning against his desk. He didn't give the other man a chance to speak. He threw the envelope at him. "Read this."
Chris held one sheet of paper in each hand, glancing back and forth between the two. He couldn't look away. Both of them opened up far too many questions; both of them left him unsettled and angry.
The one in his left hand:
file://This deed certifies that the building designated "The Lantern Saloon" is hereby owned in full by the following persons: Mr. JD Dunne, Mr. Nathan Jackson, Mr. Chris Larabee, Mr. Josiah Sanchez, Mr. Vin Tanner, Mr. Buck Wilmington.//
The one in his right:
I trust you will not be too put out by my using of you as a messenger. As you may have noticed by this time, I have left Four Corners. I will not return. I ask you to take the deed that accompanies this letter as a final gift. A token of the esteem with which I truly regard all of you gentlemen. My life has been richer for knowing you.
Ezra was gone. He'd left town rather than face Chris and the rest of the seven. Chris had given the money Ezra had left behind to Lisa, feeling relieved when they left Four Corners. Seeing them was too terrible a reminder of the fool he had been in allowing himself to fall for Ezra. He'd been dreading seeing Ezra. So long as the gambler hid in his room, Chris could put off deciding what was to be done with the gambler. Nothing could be done until the rest of the seven got a chance to talk to him. Chris had feared the decision that might be reached. He hadn't known which would be better: for Ezra to leave so he wouldn't have to see him again, or for Ezra to stay so there could maybe, maybe be a chance for something to exist between them again.
He hadn't considered the possibility that Ezra would make the decision for him. He never thought that Ezra would just leave. Even though he'd warned Ezra once never to run out on him again, he'd never really believed that the gambler would leave. For all his allusions to a shady past and his disdain for honest work, Ezra had always been right where he was needed, ready to do more than his share.
He looked up and realized he had no idea how long he'd been staring at the two pieces of paper. JD was still looking at him, waiting for a reaction. "Where did you get this?"
"A stranger told me that he'd been asked to deliver it."
"We've got to find him." Chris headed for the door.
JD grabbed his arm. "Why?"
Chris stared at him. "Because he may be able to tell us where Ezra is."
"But why do you want to find Ezra?"
"Something's not right and Ezra's the only one who can tell us what is going on."
JD stared steadily at him, then nodded. "All right. I'm going with you." He led the way to the saloon. "Best place to find a man after a ride." He was right. Once they entered the saloon, JD was able to easily find the man who'd given him the envelope. He was leaning against the bar and sipping at a glass of whiskey. "His name's Rifken," JD said.
Chris forced his way over next to the man and held out the envelope. "You brought this in?"
Rifken looked first at the envelope and then at him. "I gave that to the sheriff."
"He gave it to me. Who asked you to bring it here?"
Rifken stood up straighter. "What business is it of yours?"
He was doing this all wrong. He was letting his confusion and worry take control. "My name's Larabee. This letter is from a friend of mine. He left town without saying much of anything and I want to know if he needs help."
"You know Mr. Standish?" Rifken relaxed.
"He's a friend," Chris said, the words bitter in his mouth.
"He's a good man. That's why I said I'd deliver the letter for him. He said it was real important and he didn't want to wait for a stage. I didn't even want to take his money but he insisted."
"How do you know Ezra?"
"He's been up in Lone Pine quite a few times these past weeks. He's had some business with Clemens, the banker. He does some visiting when he's up there. Almost a week back, he even took an hour out of his day to help the schoolmarm out. She'd been teaching them about Shakespeare and he read some of a play for them. The kids seemed to like it."
Cold tingles spread painful tendrils through Chris's guts. "What day was that?"
Rifken squinted up at the ceiling. "Uh, Thursday. Thursday because it was the day after the stage came through."
Thursday. The day that Lisa and Stephen had claimed that Ezra was fooling them out of their money. The day that Ezra had done another disappearing act that was explained away by two strangers.
"Chris..." JD's voice was low and horrified.
"Get the others," Chris said. "Get them to your office. I'll be there in a moment."
After JD left, Chris stared evenly at Rifken. "How was he? When you saw him, I mean."
"He didn't look so good. I was hoping he'd stay in town for a few days and rest up, but he rode out as soon as he gave me the letter. Was he sick?"
"Yeah," Chris agreed, not wanting to explain further. "Thanks for filling me in. Let me get your drink." He reached into his pocket.
"Don't. Mr. Standish gave me more than enough." Rifken raised his glass. "The next time you see him, give him my thanks."
Chris nodded and hurried out of the saloon. Four Corners was going to have to take care of itself for a while. He and the others had to turn their attention to taking care of one of their own. When he reached JD's office the others were waiting for him. Chris didn't waste any time; too much had been wasted already. "I was wrong. The Harlons' either lied or were mistaken. Ezra couldn't have been the one who conned them; he was in Lone Pine that day."
Josiah stood up. "Damn it. Where's Ezra? Does he know?"
"He needs to know," Buck said. "Josiah, you want any help getting him to listen?"
"Ezra's not in town," JD said quietly. "He left. We don't know when."
"Then what do we do now?" Nathan asked. "Have any idea where he went?"
"We know he went to Lone Pine, but he didn't stay there for long. I don't know where he went after that." Chris shifted restlessly. "He's got a few days' lead on us, but we can catch up to him."
"Why?" Vin's question was quiet.
"What?" Chris stared at him.
"Why do you want to find him?" Vin didn't move from his casual slouch against the wall, but his gaze sharpened.
"I have to let him know that I was wrong, that he didn't do anything wrong." Why the hell couldn't Vin understand what needed to be done?
"So you want to apologize to him?"
"Yeah. And get him to come back." Ezra had to come back. Chris had been wrong and he had to have a chance to make it up to Ezra, to show him how sorry he was and how much he regretted believing the Harlons. He didn't want to face living in Four Corners without Ezra. He loved the gambler; if losing the other man had taught him nothing, it had taught him that.
Vin shrugged. "Why should he come back? Knowing Ezra, he's mighty angry. I don't think an apology is going to be enough to bring him home."
Chris clenched his jaw. He didn't want to think about that, didn't want to consider the possibility that Ezra wouldn't come back. He knew that he had hurt him. Not the punch; Ezra was tough and would soon shrug that off. But Chris knew his lack of trust in Ezra was what would damn him. He'd been unsure of his feelings for Ezra, unsure of whether or not the possibilities he sensed with Ezra were worth the possible pain of failure. He'd given into that insecurity and it had ruined everything.
"Home," JD said quietly. "Chris, the deed. Show them the deed." He watched as the small piece of paper got passed around. "I bet Ezra wanted to put all seven names on it and then changed his mind when...you know. But he wouldn't have tried to do that if he didn't want to stay. He wouldn't have tried if he didn't think of this place as home."
Nathan fingered the deed. "Then he needs to be told that this is still his home." He met Chris's gaze. "Who's going to go get him?"
"I am," Chris said immediately.
"I'm going with you," JD said.
"I'm in," Vin said firmly.
Chris could see all of the others getting ready to volunteer to come as well. "That's it. We can't take any more away from the town without putting the people here at risk. I need the rest of you to be here so we don't come back to more trouble then we left."
Josiah and Buck looked mutinous, but he glared at them until they nodded reluctantly. Nathan met his gaze steadily. "You bring him home," he said.
"I will." Chris would bring Ezra back. He wasn't willing to consider the possibility that he wouldn't be able to. He couldn't consider it, not and find the courage to find Ezra. He might not find the courage to ever give his heart again.
That settled, Chris headed back to his room. He didn't know how long the search would take and he needed to be prepared. He wasn't going to give up until he found Ezra. He wasn't going to give up until he begged for Ezra's forgiveness. He wasn't going to give up until he convinced the other man of how he truly felt and convinced him to return to Four Corners.
Ezra squinted through the summer sunlight, gauging the distance to the dust he could see on the horizon. The town he was approaching was still a few hours ride away, but he would still reach it long before dusk. He would have a bed to sleep in, people to play poker with, a warm meal...going over the list of advantages to being in a town did nothing to arouse his enthusiasm. He suspected it was because he was too exhausted to feel much of anything.
He'd ridden hard after leaving Four Corners, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the town as possible. Even after he was sure there was no longer any threat of pursuit he'd continued the punishing pace. He hadn't been sure of his course at first; 'away' was as close to a destination as he'd come up with. As the miles stretched out behind him, he'd realized that there was only one place left for him to go. He'd adjusted his direction accordingly.
Eyes fixed wearily on the horizon, Ezra found that he couldn't remember the name of the town he'd stayed in last night. It didn't matter. This time tomorrow, he wouldn't remember the name of the town he was approaching either. They were all the same: small, crowded saloons filled with men eager to try their luck against the stranger. Bland anonymous faces in bland anonymous towns. No one who knew him. No one he knew.
It was a drastic change from the life he'd known in Four Corners. He wasn't a part of anything here. No one greeted him with waiting smiles; no one reminded him of good times shared in the past or anticipated shared enjoyment in the future. In all the towns he'd passed through he'd been a novelty rather than a part of the community. He'd stood apart. Stood alone. He didn't like it. He knew he should have been used to it; before coming to Four Corners he had always held himself separate from the towns he'd lived in. He'd lived for fleecing the sheep he encountered, which meant he could never make himself a part of the flock. He never let anyone get to close because it would mean losing his edge. He'd learned well at his mother's side.
Four Corners and the six men he'd met there had changed all of that. Day by day he'd become a part of the seven and a part of the town until he realized that he wasn't going to be able to just ride away. He had made himself a home. He'd had people who'd smiled and greeted him on the street, friends who'd seek him out for the pleasure of his company rather than in hopes that he could render them a service. One friend in who's eyes he'd seen a growing warmth that match that he felt within himself. One friend whom he had thought he could trust enough to open himself up and reveal his heart. One friend who made him think that he'd finally found the place he could stay.
Ezra shook his head hard, trying to force the thoughts from his brain. He couldn't think about that. Dwelling on what was lost could only weaken him and make this journey harder than it already was. He just had to focus on reaching Doyle's ranch. If he concentrated on that, he'd make it. Ezra allowed himself a smile as he remembered the first time he'd met Doyle; the memory was exactly what he needed to distract himself.
Ezra sauntered into the saloon in Angelton, making sure all the regulars had a good chance to look him over. He was looking for a game to pass the evening and fatten his stake. He walked first to the bar and ordered a drink, using the wait time for his whiskey to come to take in his potential marks. There wasn't a game already in progress, but there was a table that would be perfect for a friendly, profitable game of poker. Ezra took his drink with a smile and then walked over to the table, claiming the seat that would give him the best view of the door and the room. Ignoring everyone else in the room, he pulled out a deck of cards and shuffled them before laying down a quick game of solitaire. Just a man minding his own business. That's all he was; he wasn't baiting a trap. Not at all.
Right on schedule, three men appeared at the table. "You looking for a game, mister?"
Careful too keep all traces of triumph from his smile, Ezra looked up at them. "I wouldn't object to one. I was just looking for a way to pass the time." He gathered the cards up with artistic difficulty rather than his usual ease. Just more bait. "Would you gentlemen be interested?"
"We'd have to make it interesting," one of them said as they all sat down.
"I suppose that would be all right." Ezra shuffled and dealt the cards. This looked like it was going to be another profitable evening. He hid his true talent in the fist initial hands; no need to frighten them off too early. He kept a constant line of chatter keeping the mood easy and light. At the same time, he kept a small portion of his attention on the rest of the room. It never paid to let down one's guard. It was for that reason he noticed the two new arrivals to the tavern: an older man followed by a younger, the younger man's hand on the other's elbow. Ezra was confused for a moment, until he noticed that the younger man never opened his eyes. He was blind.
The newcomers sat down at a table near the poker game, just off to the side of Ezra. When one of the other men at the table shuffled the cards with a flourish, producing a dramatic ruffling sound, the blind man turned his face towards the game. "Cards?" he asked quietly.
"Poker," the older man said. "Leastwise that's what it looks like. You know how to play it."
"For all the good it does me."
Ezra nodded slowly. It wouldn't do a man much good to know the rules of poker if he couldn't see the cards. Ezra knew he could play without looking at the cards...if they were marked. He never played with marked cards; he didn't need them to win. That didn't mean that he didn't know how to use them. Maude hadn't raised a fool. His mind no longer fully on the game, Ezra contemplated the difficulty of playing an honest game of poker with a blind man. It would be a challenge.
After a few more hands of poker, he was realized that he was far more interested in solving the problem of how to allow a blind man to join in a game of poker than he was in the game he was currently playing. He deliberately lost the next hand, returning a small amount of the money he'd won in order to sooth the sting of his folding out of the game altogether. Ignoring the men's requests that he stay, he stood and walked back to the bar, order three drinks. Thankful for his clever fingers, he carried the three short glasses over to the table where the blind man and his friend were seated. "Might I impose on you two gentlemen for a time?" he asked. "I come bearing gifts."
"Whiskey," the older man clarified.
"Sit down," invited the blind man.
Ezra nodded his thanks, then realized the futility of that. "Thank you," he said, sitting down. "My name is Evan Sebatians. I must apologize; I fear that I overheard you speaking earlier. My interest was piqued and now I would very much like to speak with you." He passed the drinks across the table.
The blind man raised his glass to his lips. His dark hair lay softly against his forehead, making his skin look paler than it really was. His face was all sharp angles and there was a sardonic twist to his lips. He sipped it consideringly, then said, "My name's Doyle. This is Michael. What did you hear that interested you so much?" There were slight traces of an accent in his voice; Irish if Ezra hadn't completely lost his ear for voices.
"You said that you knew how to play poker." Ezra watched Doyle's face carefully. If the man had no gift for hiding his emotions then the whole exercise would be futile. No one could play a decent game if his reactions were worn nakedly on his face.
A slight deepening of the twist at his lips was the only indication of Doyle's displeasure at being overheard. If Ezra hadn't been looking for it, he would have missed it completely. "What of it?"
"I heard you say that and I started thinking about the difficulties of having a man such of yourself play an honest game of poker. Having someone work with you leaves you open to accusations of cheating and makes you dependent on them."
"And using a marked deck so I don't need help wouldn't make me a cheater?"
"Not if we worked it right." Ezra lowered his voice and explained his plan. Doyle looked skeptical, but the more he listened to Ezra, the more he relaxed. By the time he was finishing outlining his idea, Doyle was sharing his grin.
It hadn't been the most auspicious of beginnings. Ezra hadn't been sure of his welcome when he'd approached Doyle. The other man could have easily refused his attempt to talk, not even letting him sit down at the table. The plan Ezra had presented had only slight chance of success and was based more on self-interest then any true caring about Doyle's desire to play poker. Ezra had wanted to solve a problem and prove that he was proficient enough in his chosen profession to teach even a blind man to play like a master.
Of course, he'd also had a few ideas concerning ways to turn a lovely profit in the process. That was only natural.
Odd that a man he'd met by chance in a tavern could become so important. His interest in Doyle should have lasted only so long as the man was challenging or profitable. Now he was riding as hard as he could toward Doyle, needing to reach the safety of the other man's presence. Once he reached Doyle, he'd finally be able to relax and rest. He didn't know if he'd be able to forget then, but he could hope. He had to hope.
He blinked wearily as buildings loomed up before him. Ezra slowed Chaucer's pace; trampling a child because he was inattentive would be inexcusable. As he rode through the wide central street, he realized that he knew this town. He had to be more tired than he knew if he could make his way to the town near Doyle's ranch and not realize it. Pretty soon he was going to be a danger to himself if he wasn't able to remain more aware of his surroundings.
Ezra reined in Chaucer outside of the saloon. He wasn't going to stop for long; he needed something warm to eat and coffee in order to continue riding. He couldn't linger over a poker game when he was this close to his goal. He tethered Chaucer to the post outside the saloon and went in, the prospect of reaching Doyle giving him the energy to keep moving. At the bar he ordered a drink and asked about getting meal. When he found out he could get a bowl of stew, the first real smile in days touched his lips. He ordered coffee to go with it and passed his money over the bar.
Picking up his drink, he headed for an empty table in the corner. He didn't want company. He wanted food that would fill him and give him the push he needed to finish his journey. He sat down and assiduously avoided making eye contact with anyone in the room, not wanting to attract any kind attention. He nursed his drink slowly and waited for his meal. The bartender brought over his meal, but even after the man left a shadow lingered over his table. Ezra looked up, ready to send whoever was standing there away with a curt word and threat of violence if necessary.
"Mr. Sebastian? Is that you?" The man looking down at him spoke hesitantly.
Ezra's irritation melted away as he recognized one of the hands at Doyle's ranch. "Jason! I've told you it's Ezra. Sit down. Are you still working for Doyle?"
Jason sat down. "Yeah. Are you going to see him?"
"As soon as I finish eating. Is everything all right at the Eye?" Ezra dropped into the easy way of referring to the ranch, picking up old habits as though he'd never stopped using them.
"Yeah. They're going to be happy to see you." Jason laughed a little nervously. "Did, uh, did they know you were coming?"
"No. This visit is a surprise." Ezra ate quickly as he spoke, speaking about the Eye increasing his longing to be there.
"Huh." Jason stared down at his hands.
"What? Is something amiss?"
"No. Not really. It's just...Doyle told me to come to town today. He said there was something I was supposed to pick up and I'd know what it was when I saw it."
Ezra froze, stew-laden fork halfway to his lips. After a moment, he continued eating. Doyle hadn't changed, it seemed. The Irishman had a strange way of knowing things before they happened. It had nearly frightened him at first, but he soon grew to accept it as a part of Doyle. He thought that it was perhaps a result of his blindness, other senses increasing in acuity to compensate for the loss of the one.
He was soon finished with his meal. He rose and waited for Jason to stand beside him. "Shall we?" he asked. Jason nodded jerkily and followed him. Ezra knew that the men who worked for Doyle were nervous of their employer's abilities. He ignored Jason's hesitation. If he didn't give any further comment to the incident, then neither would the ranchhand.
Ezra allowed Jason to lead the way to the Eye. If he hadn't realized he was so close to the ranch, then there was no way he was going to try to find the ranch on his own. Ezra didn't know if it was food or the knowledge of how near he was to his goal, but he found that he was feeling energized. When Doyle's house came into view he felt as though an enormous weight had slipped his shoulders, allowing him to breath freely once more. The sprawling house wasn't home to him, not like Four Corners almost was, but it was still special. It was still safe.
After they dismounted, Jason reached for Chaucer's reins. "I'll take care of him for you. I think they'll want to see you right away."
"Thank you." Ezra pulled his saddle bags off Chaucer, slinging them over one shoulder and only staggering a little under their weight. He made his way up the stairs of the front porch. Before he could knock on the front door, it was pulled inward.
A brown haired woman stared at him, her brown eyes cool. "The front door is for important guests," she said archly.
"Which is why this is the only door I ever use," Ezra replied easily. "You're looking lovely, Delia."
"I always look lovely," she said, but a pleased smile crossed her face and she stepped back to allow him to enter. "Doyle is in the front room."
Ezra lightly dropped his bags on the floor off to the side of the door and followed Delia to the front room. Doyle was sitting in a deeply padded armchair, head tilted back as he listened to the footsteps approaching. He hadn't changed much: smooth pale skin was still unlined, dark hair still tumbled over his forehead.
"Ezra," Doyle said quietly. "How're you feeling?"
The gambler got ready to deliver an easy answer.
Doyle raised his hand. "The truth, Ezra. Anything else would just be wasting both of our time."
Ezra dropped his head. He didn't know why he bothered with the obfuscation, unless it was out of pure habit. He should have learned his lesson long ago. That sort of thing never worked with Doyle. Oh, occasionally the Irishman would let him think he got away with easy answers but they both knew the truth. "I'm running again."
"Is anyone chasing you?" Delia asked, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"No." Ezra closed his eyes. "And that's the problem."
"Then you've come to the right place," Doyle said. "Laura and Samuel?"
"Who else?" Ezra felt his throat begin to close, emotion choking off his words. Laura and Samuel chasing him again, only this time they had driven him not from a temporary residence but the place he had chosen to make his home. The loss was still too sharp for him to dismiss it with a few words and a careless gesture.
"You look exhausted," Delia said. "You're room is all made up. Go lie down and I'll wake you up for dinner."
Ezra knew better than to object. Delia almost always go her own way. Doyle was the only one who had any chance of talking his way around her and Ezra just didn't have the energy to try. "Thank you," he said quietly. "I think that's best." He walked back to the front door and picked up his saddle bags. He knew where his room was; Doyle had always set it aside for him, giving him a place that he could always return to whenever he needed it.
Inside the room, he unpacked quickly. He hadn't brought all that much with him, so it didn't take long. Getting himself settled sapped the last of his energy and the idea of a nap was most welcome. He laid himself out on the bed and closed his eyes. No matter how tired he was, he knew sleep would be long in coming. First he would have to relive the moment when Chris stared down at him in the dirt, disgust wiping away any other feeling that he might have ever felt for him. It was so stupid. He knew that Chris didn't love him. The gunslinger never had. How could he have, if he was so quick to reject Ezra? He'd been a fool. Ezra had allowed his love for Chris to convince him that there was something more between them than lust. He had no doubt that Chris had wanted him, but Laura's lies had managed to kill that desire. If there had been anything else between them, anything more then mere acquaintanceship Chris wouldn't have believed Laura. Cursing his stupidity, Ezra waited for the awful images of Chris's rage to stop playing behind his eyelids and waited for exhaustion to finally give him respite.
Chris glared at the buildings growing ever closer on the horizon. He was tired of riding, tired of always being a step behind Ezra. He wanted to find the gambler and convince him to come back to Four Corners where he belonged. The past few days had been torturous exercises in futility. No matter how hard they rode, they never caught up to Ezra. The gambler maintained a constant lead of a few days and it was driving Chris insane.
He'd set a hard pace following Ezra, and JD and Vin had stayed beside him the entire time. They didn't stop in towns to sleep or eat; they only paused long enough to confirm that Ezra had passed through and then they were riding on, following the sketchy tracks that Vin managed to locate. It was wearing them all down, but none of them talked about slowing down or turning back.
For Ezra to have gotten so far ahead of them he must have driven himself and his mount at an exhausting pace. Chris didn't want to think about the emotions that must have moved Ezra to move so quickly. The memory of the banker's words in Lone Pine were bad enough.
The banker's gaze shifted nervously from Chris over to JD. "You say you're the sheriff in Four Corners? Mr. Standish isn't it any trouble, is he?"
"Not from us," JD said. "We're not so sure about other people, though, which is why we want to find him so bad."
"I thought something might be wrong." Clemens shook his head. "I thought so, but I just didn't want to press."
Chris latched on to those words immediately. This man had spoken to Ezra. He might have some insight, know a clue that would help him figure out how to convince the other man to come home. "What made you think he needed help?"
"You know Mr. Standish; he's always got a smile and a hello for everyone. It was a pleasure doing business with him. But when he came here last, he looked like a man who never planned on smiling again. He didn't look like he was sleeping much at all, either. He was pale, but not like with sickness. It was more like from worry, like a man who had a powerful lot on his mind. When he had me take his name off the deed, I knew something terrible was wrong, but I couldn't ask. Sometimes he gets so wrapped up in those fancy manners of his that I just can't get passed them."
Vin raised his head sharply. "His name was on the deed?"
"The one to the saloon? Yes, that's how he wanted it in the first place. We'd only just gotten all the loose ends tied up about a week back. He'd seemed really pleased by it; he even insisted on buying me a drink after we got everything finished." Clemens looked over at Chris. "I'm just glad he's got friends who are good enough that they'll go after him. You're going to make sure that he gets the help he needs?" Chris's numb nod seemed to reassure him. "Good."
Chris hadn't been able to answer Clemens then. He'd let JD act as sheriff, thanking the banker for his help as they'd left. Clemens' words haunted him still. Good friends. Making sure Ezra got help. If Chris had been thinking like a friend instead of a jealous coward, Ezra wouldn't need help. If he'd been thinking at all, none of this would have happened. He withdrew into a brooding silence as they'd ridden way from Lone Pine. Guilt urged him to return to Four Corners and hole up in his room, to shun the world and sink into despair. He'd fought hard against that urge, battling the instincts that he'd given into after the death of his wife and son, the ones that sent him into hiding until Buck had dragged him back into the light of living.
Chris was miserably aware of the depth of his cowardice. He had allowed it to destroy Ezra's happiness, given it free reign and driven a friend from his home. Ezra had dared to take a chance and reach out to the rest of them with a concrete sign of his commitment to both the Seven and Four Corners. The gambler by nature was reticent and self-contained; to make such an open and blatant declaration was to take a risk on a level that shook Chris. And what had he done? He'd been so frightened of the possibility of being hurt that he'd lashed out instead of giving Ezra a chance to defend himself. The thought of losing Ezra had upset him so much that he'd done his damnedest to be sure that he'd never have any sort of relationship with Ezra at all. That fear had made him react so violently; that fear had ruled him and led him to hurt the man he loved.
He'd won the battle against that fear and the guilt that so quickly followed it, though. He'd kept going, continuing to follow Ezra despite his uncertainty and misgivings. Chris knew that he had made grievous mistakes and hurt the green-eyed man badly. He didn't want to think about what he was going to have to do to convince Ezra to return; he'd leave worry about that for when it was actually upon him.
They finally reached the town toward which they'd been travelling. They had no need for words: the past days had drilled into them a rhythm that they now followed without thought. Ezra was a creature of habit so the surest place to find word of him was in the largest local tavern. Each man dismounted and secured his house to the hitching post outside the saloon and then they proceeded into the building as a solid group. JD motioned the man behind the bar over while Vin and Chris scanned the crowd, searching for Ezra's face.
Chris didn't really expect to see Ezra in the saloon. He'd gotten his hopes up in the past but he'd learned his lesson. Ezra was ahead of them and he was running strong still; he wasn't going to dally in the saloon of a small town, waiting for them to catch up to him. Chris looked around the room all the same. If he didn't see Ezra, he still might catch sight of some clue that the other man passed through, something that might tell them at the least where he was headed.
He was also checking for possible sources of danger to himself and the men with him. Vin and JD had proven themselves to be exceptional friends, not just to him but to Ezra as well. Not only had they ridden tirelessly with him as they pursued Ezra, but they had waited out his silence and been a source of companionship and support for him as he'd worked his way through understanding just what had gone so very wrong with him and Ezra. Both men looked worn by the hard travelling but Chris knew that even if he were to give up at this very moment and turn back to Four Corners, they would continue on, searching for Ezra to let him know that he was missed and welcome back in the town that had become home for all of them.
"Chris." JD's voice was low, the excitement in it carefully controlled. "The barkeep said he was in here a few days ago. He met up with a hand for a ranch just outside of town. The two of them sounded pretty friendly and Ezra left with him. He seemed to be eager to get to the Seeing Eye."
"Seeing Eye?" Chris stayed focussed on the facts. He couldn't let excitement interfere with the need to get all the possible information out of the situation.
"That's the name of the ranch." JD grimaced. "Weird, I know. The bartender and the men listening in at the bar seem to think the place is pretty strange so we'll want to be careful when we head out there."
Chris nodded. Strange or not, if Ezra was there, that's where they were headed. He caught Vin's gaze and jerked his head toward the door. There was nothing more they could learn here. They walked out of the saloon and remounted their horses. JD led the way, using the directions given to him by the bartender.
"What kind of name is Seeing Eye?" asked Vin.
Chris shook his head. It wasn't a normal name, like Bar 7 or Triple M. He couldn't rouse much curiosity over it, though. Unless it turned out to directly effect Ezra somehow, then he couldn't convince himself that it really mattered. The ride to the ranch didn't take long; it was only a few miles outside the town.
A large house stood off a lightly traveled track. It was solid and well-built, neat and orderly. Off to one side, a man stood watching the horses inside a corral appraisingly. He turned his attention to Chris and the others as they came closer. The man left the corral and walked over toward them. "Can I help you?"
"Could be," Chris answered. "We're looking for a friend of ours and we were told he might have passed this way. His name's Standish. Ezra. Have you seen him?"
The man started to answer, then shook his head. "Let me get the boss. You'll be wanting to talk to him." He nodded over toward a hitching post. "Your horses will be fine there."
Chris was willing to go along with it. The man hadn't said that he didn't know Ezra, or that the gambler had come and gone. Chris wasn't going to get his hopes up, but he was going to give the man some leeway in this situation. He tethered his horse. While he waited for JD and Vin to follow suit, he looked over the horses in the corral. All of them wore the same brand: a circle inside an oval, a rough approximation of an open eye. That explained the name of the ranch, then.
The man led them around to the side of the house to a small door. He opened it up and gestured for them to follow him inside. "Delia?"
A woman walked out of the kitchen Chris could glimpse off to the right. Her hands were white with a covering of flour and she held them carefully in front of her. "Friends of yours, Michael?" she asked, looking over the men from Four Corners.
"They're here looking for an Ezra Standish," the man answered.
Delia's eyes narrowed. She was strikingly beautiful, dark hair tied back to reveal the delicate bone structure of her face. "Are they, now?" She stared at them consideringly.
Chris could feel the challenge in her look and raised his chin a little in order to better meet it. He didn't know who this woman was, but it was obvious that she knew who Ezra was. Her gaze clearly said that he was being judged and he didn't think he was measuring up at all. All his instincts screamed at him that she was a threat to him finding Ezra, but she was also the best lead they'd found yet.
JD apparently didn't care for the skeptical tone in her voice. "We are and we really need to find him," he said. "Have you seen him?"
Delia wiped her hands off on her apron. "Come with me."
That wasn't a real answer, but Chris followed her as she walked toward the front of the house, Vin and JD close behind. Michael didn't accompany them. Chris glanced around as he passed through the house, stealing looks into the kitchen. The decoration in the house was minimal, but he liked it in spite of himself. It was clean, the simple lines appealing to his nature.
Delia took them to a room filled with comfortable looking chairs. One chair was occupied by a dark-haired man. The seated man didn't rise when they entered the room, but he turned his head toward them. Dark lashes lay against pale skin; the man didn't open his eyes. "Sweetheart," Delia said.
"Are they here?" The seated man cocked his head to the side. "Who decided to come?"
Chris felt irritation growing in him. Why the hell was the man not even bothering to look at them? Delia moved to stand beside the dark-haired man. Chris watched the careful way she dropped a hand to his shoulder, the way Doyle didn't turn to look at her or even watch her progress over to his side. It all came together for him: the seated man was blind. Chris shoved down his anger and answered him. "My name's Chris Larabee. JD Dunne and Vin Tanner are with me."
"Were you expecting us?" Vin ask quietly.
"I was expecting someone," the man said. "My name is Doyle. You've already met my wife, Delia."
Chris wanted to know exactly how this man thought he'd known they were coming, but that was secondary to his real concern. "Has Ezra Standish been here?"
"Yes," Doyle said.
"How long ago?" JD asked, leaning forward in anticipation.
"I'm not sure. He went out riding maybe two hours ago." Doyle spoke carelessly, his casual words cutting through Chris.
Two hours. Ezra had been here two hours ago. They had found him. Relief coursed through him. The dark fear that they would never catch up to Ezra, that he would never find the other man was banished by a wave of hope. "Where was he headed?" If they hurried they could catch up to him. He could see Ezra before sundown.
"He just wanted to take a look at the Eye. I don't know if he had a set route he was going to take." Doyle rubbed his cheek against Delia's hand.
"He'd better be back soon," Delia said. "Dinner will be ready soon."
"He'll be back in time," Doyle promised. "You gentleman have time to clean up before we eat."
Chris hesitated. Ezra would be there soon? Fear began to creep back in. He'd focused on the problem on finding Ezra for so long and so hard that he'd managed to forget where the real difficulty was going lie. He was going to have to convince Ezra to give him a chance to apologize and try to explain what had happened, convince Ezra to listen to him and return to Four Corners where he belonged. If things went badly, Chris doubted they'd be allowed to stay for supper. These people were friends of Ezra; there was no way their invitation would stand. "We appreciate the invitation, but maybe we should wait for Ezra to return before we make any definite plans."
"I think that's a good idea," Delia said. She stared at Chris, antagonism clear in her cool gaze.
"Now, Delia. You went to all the trouble of baking that pie. We can't let that go to waste. And if you gentlemen know Ezra at all, you know he is the very soul of courtesy. He would never dream of rescinding an invitation once it's been made." The smile on Doyle's face was slightly mocking. There was no way he could have missed the hostility in his wife's voice, yet he made no comment on it and made no effort to smooth it over. The odd smile on his face said he had something else planned, something that amused him more than the thought of throwing them out.
Chris fought down anger once more. It was as though Doyle didn't believe they were friends of Ezra. "Ezra's also got a good sense of what's wrong and right." He paused. "Ezra never mentioned you." It didn't quite come out as a challenge.
Doyle grinned. "I'm not surprised. I've known Ezra for a long time. He's not a man who feels the need to share his business with anyone else."
"It's always good to see him, though." Delia stroked her finger down the side of her husband's cheek, then walked toward the kitchen. "I like the fact that he lets this place be a home to him."
Chris exchanged a frustrated glance with JD. These two were flaunting the fact that they knew Ezra and knew about them, even though Ezra had never mentioned Doyle or Delia to the members of the seven. It was as though they were casting doubt on the reality of the friendship that they, that Chris, shared with Ezra. It only served to fuel the fire of insecurity that was beginning to build within him. Ezra was going to come back and find them waiting for him and Chris had no idea how he would react. He expected anger and an impenetrable poker face. He just hoped that Ezra would give him time to try to explain, to beg forgiveness and make things right.
He wanted Ezra to come home. Home to Four Corners, not this mysterious home that he'd never known had existed. Home to where Chris could be with him and see him and finally admit to the way Ezra made him feel. Home where Chris could finally begin to build the life he wanted: one with Ezra at its center and at his side.
Thoughts of the secret dreams bolstered Chris's resolve. "Where can we wash up?" Chris was going to meet whatever challenge this Doyle thought he could throw at him. He was going to see Ezra and he was going to convince Ezra to come home. Home with him, to Four Corners where he belonged.
Absently patting Chaucer's neck, Ezra stretched the muscles in his neck. It felt good to be out riding, out in the sunlight. He'd enjoyed his survey of the Eye. The ranch was looking great; well tended and healthy. Between them Michael and Doyle had hired a good group of hands to take care of the place.
For all that he enjoyed his journey around the ranch, Ezra found the whole experience strangely empty. He'd gotten out of the habit of being alone. He missed the companionship he'd found with the Seven. He just couldn't find the same pleasure in viewing the ranch when he knew how much richer the venture would have been with any of the other men with him. JD would have regarded the whole experience with unabashed enthusiasm. The younger man had never been on a large ranch before and would no doubt have been impressed with the way the place was operated, the size and beauty of the Eye. Vin would share that appreciation for the beauty of the land, the way the sparsely vegetated hills cradled grassy valleys filled with cattle. The rich scent of the earth as it lay close to the small lake on the west end of the property, the cool promise in the breeze: all of it would have appealed to the tracker immensely.
Ezra also knew that Buck would enjoy the Eye, but he would be more interested in seeing the tall man meet Delia. There was no way Buck would be able to resist the chance to flirt with such a lovely woman. It would be a shame to see him be cut to ribbons by her tongue, but there would be undeniable entertainment in it as well. Nathan would be more interested in talking to Doyle. Ezra hadn't missed the healer's interest in those society would consider underdogs. Doyle certainly qualified and Nathan would gain satisfaction in seeing Doyle's success. Ezra would have also liked to listen in on a conversation between Josiah and Doyle. The two men adhered to different philosophies, but both of them enjoyed speaking in hypotheticals and speculating about the possibilities of which life consisted. Ezra had no doubt that the ensuing debate would be lively and enlightening.
If Chris were there...the thought brought Ezra up short. In his foolish dreams, he'd show Chris around the ranch, enjoying watching Chris's face as the other man took in the sight of the small bit of perfection Doyle and Delia had created. It was a haven away from the worry of the rest of the world where a person could work and relax and live in peace. Ezra knew that Chris would appreciate the opportunity and serenity that could be found here. That wasn't going to happen, though. If Chris showed up at the Eye, it would be to attempt to arrest him or force his to pay some other sort of restitution for his supposed crimes. Wishing that Chris was here was stupid in the extreme.
Irritated with himself, Ezra turned Chaucer directly back toward the ranch house. If he let himself follow that train of thought, he was going to lose all the calmness that he'd worked so hard to gain. He needed to get back to the house for dinner, anyway. Delia was liable to get snippy if he was late. She might even go so far as to insist on whipping up something special for him. That was a punishment he'd rather avoid. He loved Delia as dearly as he could love a sister, but given any sort of choice he'd only eat what Natalie, the girl hired to help out at the house, made instead of one of Delia's concoctions.
Approaching the house from behind, Ezra dismounted at the stable and took care of Chaucer, unsaddling rubbing down the horse, finishing up with an affectionate scratch to Chaucer's ears. As he walked toward the house, Ezra smiled in unalloyed pleasure. Doyle and Delia had done well for themselves. He saw no problems with how the ranch was being run; it was obviously healthy and would continue to prosper for them. Delia could afford to have a girl work at the house to help with the cleaning and the cooking, a fact for which Doyle had to be grateful. He was pleased for his friends, truly glad in the face of their happiness.
Deciding to forgo the usual play-argument in which he engaged Delia, Ezra opened up the side door to the house instead of walking all the way over to the front door. He heard activity in the kitchen and a quick glimpse reassured him that Natalie was hard at work there. His hopes for the quality of dinner rose considerably. If Natalie was in charge of dinner then most likely all of it would be edible. As much as he loved Delia, he was far happier knowing that someone else had prepared the meal.
He continued walking, knowing that his hosts were most likely in the front room. He wanted to let them know he was back in plenty of time for dinner. He'd save his assessment of the ranch for while they were eating. He wanted to enjoy seeing the honest pleasure spread across their faces when they heard their hard work and accomplishments complemented. "Delia?" he called softly. "Doyle, I'm back." He walked into the front room. What he found there made him halt, all movement and strength gone from his limbs.
JD lifted a hand in a sheepish wave. Vin nodded in silent greeting. Chris rose to his feet but said nothing. Ezra tore his gaze away from the Four Corners men and looked over at Delia and Doyle. Delia looked worriedly back at him. Doyle's expression was unconcerned. He wasn't thrown by the presence of the people Ezra had run from.
Ezra shook his head. "Keeping secrets?" He turned to face Chris. "Mr. Larabee. Your presence here is most...unexpected. I do hope you're not here in any sort of official capacity?" He glanced over at JD. "My arrest is not being sought?"
"No!" Chris exclaimed, drawing Ezra's attention immediately back to him.
Ezra didn't let his relief show. He hadn't really thought that was a possibility, but he had to be sure. Laura would never try to press charges against him; in a court, there was too much of a chance that her lies would be discovered. He also doubted that the members of the Seven would arrest him. Disgusted as they were by him, they would not be quick to forget the friendship they had shared. Banish him, yes. Make him pay restitution, yes. But send him to prison? He didn't think so. They were above that.
A second unpleasant possibility occurred to him. What if they believed that he hadn't paid enough restitution? He'd left three hundred dollars behind. Laura couldn't possibly have claimed that he'd taken more. He didn't have much left. The greatest portion of all the money that he'd saved over the years had gone into buying the saloon. After leaving behind the money for Laura and Samuel, he only had two hundred left. It was a respectable stake, but it didn't give him much of a cushion in the case that some sort of emergency arose. "Have you then come to demand further compensation for the-" His words stumbled for a moment; he'd never learned the full details of the names Laura and Samuel had been using.
He never got a chance to finish the sentence. Chris took a compulsive step toward him. "No! No, I'm, we're, not here for that." He ran a hand over his hair. "I'm here to apologize."
Ezra opened his mouth, but he couldn't find any words.
Chris continued speaking hurriedly, filling in the silence. "I was wrong. I'm sorry, Ezra. I know the words aren't enough, but I am. I know that the Harlons lied about you. I don't know their reasons but I do know they lied. Everything I said to you, everything I did...it was all wrong. A mistake. Ezra, come back to Four Corners. The deed that you sent isn't right unless there are seven names on it." He swallowed hard. "Please, Ezra. Come back."
Time seemed to stop as Ezra's thoughts wove themselves into meaningless tangles. He felt more than just relief. Stunned disbelief came closer to describing it. This wasn't real. It was a fantasy. His friends realized his innocence and came for him, asking him to return home while apologies spilled from their lips. Chris had led them, and it was Chris who would ride beside him as he reentered Four Corners, where Chris would continue to stay by his side for the rest of their lives. It was the answer to every lonely dream he'd ever had.
Ezra shook himself. It was a dream; at least, the way he was reading the situation was no more than a dream. Chris hadn't come after him out of love; he'd come out of honor. For all his pragmatic realism, the gunslinger adhered to a strict code of honor. It was that code that had placed him on Ezra's trail. His sense of right and fairness hadn't allowed him to ignore events once he'd discovered Ezra's innocence. It was honor that motivated his pursuit. Not love. That was the stuff of fantasy. Chris was merely following his nature and dealing honorable with someone he'd wronged, even if that someone was someone so dishonorable as Ezra. That was why he was asking Ezra to return even if he personally didn't care if he was in the town or not.
The presence of the others was easily explained as well. JD and Vin might even honestly wish for him to return. JD was rapidly maturing, but he was still years away from developing the sort of brutal pragmatism he was going to need to truly be able to survive in the world where he had chosen to live. He remained enough of an idealist that he would want Ezra to return, confident that things could be made right once more, sure that everything could go back to the way it was with a heart felt apology and hopeful trust for the future. Vin wasn't nearly so naive, but the tracker had revealed himself to be a man who believed in second chances. He wasn't one to believe the worst of another until he had absolute proof of guilt; the false warrant on his own head no doubt helped to make him more understanding. Vin would welcome Ezra back and share the burden of false accusation with him.
Ezra licked his lips. He couldn't go back to Four Corners. He couldn't return there and wait for the trust to run out again, wait to be forced to leave and lose his home again. Even if that didn't happen, even if the trust lasted and he and the Seven all stayed in Four Corners until they were all old men, with JD still being called 'Kid' until the day even he died in his bed, he still couldn't stay. He couldn't go back to living his life in the constant hope that there was no hope of anything ever coming of his love for Chris. He knew now that Chris could never love him; how could he, when he thought so poorly of Ezra?
He needed to get out of Four Corners, away from the place where he'd managed to mire himself so completely in a hopeless situation. He'd spent his entire childhood chasing after the love of his mother, wanting to be confident in her love. He'd never succeeded, always living at the periphery of Maude's life instead of the center where he longed to be. Ezra could learn from past mistakes. He wasn't going to waste more years, fruitlessly waiting for Chris's love. He had to move on and make a new life for himself, leaving the mistakes of his past and his present behind.
Squaring his shoulders, Ezra summoned up his most congenial smile. "I truly appreciate you gentlemen going to all the difficulty of allowing me to know that my name has been restored to its former standing. You have proven yourselves to be true friends." He forced casual indifference into his voice. "As appreciative as I am of the news of my exoneration, I must tell you that I have no plans to return to Four Corners. I lingered there far longer than I intended and now that I have traveled beyond it's dusty streets, I find myself filled with wanderlust again. I would be most grateful if you would keep the deed as it is. Think of it as a symbol of my esteem for all of you, a symbol of the gratitude I feel for your friendship and the pleasure I received from your company."
He took a quick step backward and kept speaking, not giving anyone a chance to interrupt or respond. "Please do excuse me. The sun was quite a bit warmer then I had expected and I must retire or I do fear I will disgrace myself with an unseemly collspse. Please don't allow my absence to stop you from enjoying dinner. Thank you gentlemen once more. You truly do have my appreciation and my thanks."
Ezra didn't push his luck any further. He fled immediately up the stairs to his room. He felt like a coward from running away from Chris, but he couldn't stay in the room any more than he could have stayed in Four Corners. It would hurt too much. Besides, he wasnt sure of how long he could withstand the temptation to go crawling back to Chris, to live on false hope and empty dreams and die alone because he was a fool.
Safe behind his closed door, he found his thoughts drifting to Chris and how the gunslinger had looked. His blond hair had been darkened by water, wet from a recent rinse. He'd looked tired, with the shadows under his eyes made more marked by the shadows in them. Underneath the weariness he still looked good, lean and hard and somehow invincible, his determination and will so evident and so much a part of his attraction.
Ezra groaned and wrenched his thoughts from their favorite path. Even thinking about Chris was too dangerous to be allowed. He was still in love with the man and was all to likely to give into the desires of his heart. A complete break was the only possible recourse left to him. When the sun rose tomorrow, Chris would have begun his journey to Four Corners. Ezra would stay a few more days at the Eye and then take himself north. He needed more distance, between himself and Four Corners, between himself and Chris.
He wasn't finished running yet.
Chris could feel JD and Vin staring at him. He knew they were waiting for him to react. Coming after Ezra had been his idea; they were going to follow his lead. Unfortunately, he had no idea how to react. He'd imagined Ezra being angry with them and having to apologize again and again before the man would even consider forgiving him. He'd imagined needing the combined weight of JD and Vin's pleas as well in order to convince Ezra to forgive and come home.
He'd never dreamed that Ezra would be so quick and easy with his forgiveness, or that the gambler would be so absolute in his refusal to return to Four Corners. If it had been hurt or anger that kept Ezra away, Chris could have countered it. He had prepared himself for needing to swallow his pride and lay his heart bare. Ezra was a man who understood people; if Chris confessed his love and explained his fear, Ezra would accept the answer and eventually forgive his actions. It was that confession that would lead Ezra into agreeing to come home. Ezra's easy forgiveness had robbed Chris of the chance to make that confession.
Chris felt a prickle of fear. Ezra had been startled to see them, he'd been able to read that much in the gambler's manner. The green-eyed man had quickly regained control of himself, though, and Chris wasn't sure that even Ezra could fake the level of nonchalance. What if Ezra really could forgive them that easily? What if Ezra could forgive him that easily? What if his betrayal hadn't been as much of a blow to Ezra? What if he'd been utterly mistaken about the way Ezra felt toward him? If he was wrong and Ezra regarded him as no more than a colleague, then perhaps the other man would be able to move on this easily.
Ezra had looked good. When he'd entered the room, Chris had been caught by the smile on his face, warm and open. There was a sparkle in his green eyes and lightness to his step that had filled Chris with pleasure. That had all faded when he'd spied the men from Four Corners, but once he got over the surprise his smile had returned as wide as before. He'd looked like himself, happy and at ease.
Doubt filled him and soon became defeat. He'd failed. He'd driven Ezra away and now he'd never know if he would have found love with him. He shifted his gaze and took in the way his friends were looking at him, Vin concerned and JD bewildered. "I guess that's it, then," he said, and even he could hear the sadness in his voice.
JD shook his head in denial. "We can't just give up. We need to talk to him again and make him understand."
"You heard the man," Chris responded. "Ezra knows his own mind. We can't change it for him."
"You're right." Delia's comment drew Chris's attention to her. "Ezra is a grown man. He can think for himself. It was good of you to let him know that his name has been cleared." Her smile was bright and false. "Are you still going to stay for dinner, or did you want to get an early start back to Two Corners?"
"Four Corners," JD corrected.
"Whatever. You've failed. Isn't it time for you to go now?"
Chris didn't consider himself a man of much refinement or social grace. He was a plain-spoken man who would probably be considered as shockingly rude in the parlors of the fine houses in the big cities back east. But Delia's attitude was so blatantly rude that it surprised him. Instead of taking immediate offense, he forced himself to take a moment to think about what was going on. Delia hadn't been overly polite to them, but this level of hostility was new.
He glanced over at Doyle to see how the man was reacting to his wife's attitude. The blind man was still seated, but he no longer seemed to be as utterly relaxed as before. There were lines of tension in his limbs as he listened intently to all that was said. Chris decided he wanted to hear what Doyle had to say. "Your wife seems to think that we've got no chance in convincing Ezra to come with us. What do you think?"
Doyle shrugged. "You heard Ezra just as well as I did. What you think matters more."
"It sounds to me like he asked your opinion," Vin said, obviously unamused by the cryptic avoidance of an answer.
Chris held up a hand. Doyle said that he had heard Ezra. The gunslinger thought back. Ezra's manner had been completely at ease, his gestures smooth and his smile warm. He'd look like a man without a real care in this world. But his voice...there hadn't been the same easy warmth in his voice that he'd flashed in his smile. His voice had been tight with tension, the accent thick as usually happened when he was stressed. The words sounded casually gracious, but they'd been spoken too quickly for Ezra's carefree attitude to be real.
The very existence of a carefree attitude also set off warnings inside of Chris's mind. Ezra was letting things go too easily. The gambler had to be more upset then he was letting on. If he was just upset over being suspected of running a con, he would have been willing to be wooed back. The lack of trust would have hurt him deeply, but not so much as to drive him away from Four Corners forever. It would have taken much groveling on their parts, but they would have been able to convince him to return and bring him back home where he belonged. There had to be something beyond wounded pride and damaged friendship that Ezra was concealing. There was something that Ezra was running from and the gambler didn't want anyone to know what it was.
Chris turned his back on everyone else in the room, staring sightlessly at the doorway through which Ezra had disappeared. He turned all his attention inward, focusing on his carefully treasured memories of Ezra. He remembered soft-voiced comments made for his ears alone, chairs left empty and waiting for him beside Ezra whenever he entered the saloon, slow smiles and green eyes gone soft just for him. It was these things that had convinced Chris that his feelings for Ezra were returned. It was probably those feelings that the gambler was running from. Ezra did love him. Chris loved him in return and he wasn't going to let Ezra go without a true fight.
He turned back around and found Delia still staring challengingly at him. He remembered her comment about it being time for them to leave. "Actually, I think we'll abuse your hospitality for a little while longer. I'm not going anywhere without Ezra."
Delia raised her chin. "Don't you think you've done enough damage? You should go before you do anymore."
Chris shook his head. "I know what I've done, but I'm going to make it right."
"He doesn't need to be hurt anymore." Her gaze was flat and hard.
"I'm not going to hurt him again. I'm a fool, but not that big of one. I'm going to make sure that no one else hurts him again."
Delia waved her hand dismissively. "You're just over-reacting. Three weeks from now you won't be able to remember why you wanted him in your life so badly."
"Never," Chris said.
"Why?" She was practically sneering at him. "Because you're such an honorable man?"
The complete disdain in her voice pushed him too far. "No. Because I love him." As soon as the words were out of his mouth he froze, realizing that he had said too much, gone too far. His gaze immediately moved to Vin and JD.
JD's eyes were round; they would be comical if the situation wasn't so serious. Vin stood slightly behind JD. The tracker had a small half-smile playing at the corners of his lips and he nodded as though Chris's outburst held no surprise for him at all. JD opened his mouth, but no words came out as he searched for a response.
Vin laid his hand on JD's shoulder. "Shouldn't be that big a shock to you, JD. Love is about a person's spirit. Their soul, if you want to call it that. When you find the spirit that matches yours, it doesn't matter what the person looks like."
JD glanced back and forth between Chris and Vin a few times, then nodded slowly. "If you say so. I-"
Vin squeezed his shoulder. "We'll talk about this later, JD. Promise you that." He looked over at Chris. "You were too hard on Ezra, Chris. Even with this driving you."
"It was because of this, because of the way it scared me that made me be so hard." Chris didn't bother to hide his self-disgust. "I was a fool, but I'm more scared of losing him now then I am of anything else."
"I don't believe it." Delia's words broke in, drawing Chris's attention away from his friends. Her hands were on her hips, but the malevolence had faded from her eyes.
"Finally," Doyle agreed, straightening in his chair. "Are you sure you know your heart now Larabee? If you're going to panic again, tell me now."
Chris clamped down on his instinctive anger. Doyle was Ezra's friend...and what the hell had he meant by 'finally'? "I'm sure. But what you're going to do about it -"
"I'm going to give you the chance to redeem yourself. You won't be able to do it without my help." There was absolute certainty in his voice. "You'll need to make amends. Driving him away from Four Corners based on the lies of strangers was the act of a fool."
Chris's anger was drowned in a wave of disgust. "I can't believe I was so stupid."
"You weren't the first person to be fooled by them." Doyle relaxed back into his chair. "You were taken in by professionals. Laura and Samuel spend their lies conning people, and they've had a lot of practice with the game they ran on you. Four Corners wasn't the first town Ezra has been forced to leave quickly because of their lies."
"They've done it before?" Chris had believed that Ezra and the rest of them were the victims of some enterprising thieves.
"Laura and Samuel's father was a conman who had the misfortune of working with Maude. One of their schemes went bad. Ezra managed to get Maude out before the authorities could arrest her, but her partner didn't listen to his warnings and was left behind to be arrested. His children have always blamed Ezra for failing to save their father. Their lies are one of the reasons Ezra has kept moving over the years; they never allow him to stay in one place for too long."
Doyle's sightless gaze remained pinned on Chris. "Ezra deserves to have a place to call home, a place that he will always be welcome and will never be forced to leave."
"He has that in Four Corners." Chris didn't care that Doyle couldn't see him: he stared at the seated man. "He has that in Four Corners and he's never going to lose it again." Four Corners was Ezra's home. Ezra was never going to have to doubt that again. The same was true for Chris's love: Chris was going to make Ezra believe that, make him see that his love was real and wasn't going to disappear because of fear or distrust or the vengeance of outsiders. Ezra had home and love waiting for him, and Chris was going to make sure that Ezra could see that.
Doyle nodded. "Fine. Then you are all welcome to stay to dinner. Ezra will come down some time soon and you'll have another chance to make him understand that." He stood up and took Delia's waiting hand. "Let's eat."
Adjusting the shoulders of his jacket, Ezra gave his appearance a careful once over in the mirror. He knew he couldn't really avoid all the questions that Doyle and Delia would ask, but perhaps if he put up a good enough front he could delay those questions for a bit and win himself some more time to try to recover from the shock of seeing Chris again. He would have been rattled by the sight of JD and Vin alone, or any of the other members of the Seven. It was Chris who had so badly shaken his composure. Somber blue eyes glanced his way and Ezra was lost in his own private hell again, in love and hopeless and right back where he started. All his running for nothing, his search for peace destroyed and all Chris had needed to do was look at him.
He slid his hand over his hair once more and was satisfied with his appearance. He didn't want to face his friends but since he could only hide so long, Ezra made his way downstairs. It had taken him well over an hour to be certain of his composure and he was sure he had missed dinner. Delia would no doubt have saved him a plate and would insist on watching him eat all of it. He didn't have much of an appetite but he would eat, if for no other reason than to persuade his friends that he was well. He walked into the living room, prepared to laugh off the visit of the men from Four Corners.
Four people turned to watch him enter. Ezra stopped dead. What the hell were Chris, Vin and JD doing there? He didn't understand why they were still there. He'd told them to leave. He'd been so sure that they would go; after all, he'd assured them that there were no hurt feelings and no need for them to stay. The urge to run rose up within him once more and this time he lacked the strength to resist it. He nodded his head briefly toward the people in the living room. "I just wanted to wish you all a good evening," he said. To his horror, his hand raised of its own accord as though to tip a hat. He managed to halt the motion before it could be fully realized and turned to leave. It was just one more sign of how little control he had over himself when Chris was around. He couldn't stay. He could have Chaucer saddled in a matter of minutes. With his derringer in place up his sleeve and a deck of cards in his pockets, he'd be able to take care of himself until he was able to return to the Eye to retrieve the rest of his belongings, after the men from Four Corners left.
Before he could reach the front door, a hand closed about his arm just above his elbow in a firm grip. He turned to gently shake off Delia and warn her not to try to detain him and froze. Delia was still in the living room. "Mr. Larabee." He swallowed hard on a throat gone suddenly dry. "Is there something you needed?"
The blond man's gaze met his squarely and held it, searching his eyes for something Ezra could not name. "Yeah," Chris said. "I'm sorry, Ezra, but you can't go just yet. There's still some unfinished business we've got to take care of." His voice was low and his words hummed with intensity.
"You said you didn't come here to arrest me." Ezra closed his eyes briefly against rising nausea. This couldn't be happening. Chris couldn't have changed his mind.
The gunslinger answered him quickly, the words coming in a rush. "No! No, it's not that. Just business in Four Corners that you should be aware of." Chris made no move to release Ezra's arm, but his grip softened and gentled.
"I concluded my business in Four Corners. It's all behind me now." Ezra won the battle to keep his tone level. He had no more business in Four Corners. As soon as he could convince his damn stupid heart of that, he'd be better off by far. He would ride north and east and leave the city and the men and his foolishness behind. Maybe he'd be able to leave the hurt behind as well.
Chris shook his head but he didn't move away. "There's the deed, for one."
Ezra blinked rapidly a few times to ensure there would be no trace of tears. The deed. He'd laid his hopes and feelings bare with that document and left himself open to pain that he should have seen coming. He never should have allowed his hopes for the future to rise so high, nor should he have revealed them so publicly and irrevocably. "It is a fairly straight forward document and good Mr. Clemens assured me that everything was completely in order."
"It has the wrong number of names on it." Chris spoke simply, as if the problem should have been immediately obvious.
Why did Chris insist on standing so close? Ezra didn't want to give a show of weakness so he couldn't step back, but this amount of closeness wasn't like Chris. "It has six names on it: that matches with the number of you remaining in town. I fail to see the problem."
"There's one name too many." Again, Chris spoke as a man stating the obvious.
Ezra opened his mouth but he could make no reply. What the hell was Chris saying? If something had happened to one of the Seven, then Vin or JD would have told him even if Chris had not. Who else was leaving?
A painful smile twisted the corners of the gunslinger's mouth. "If you're not going back to Four Corners, then my name has to come off the deed as well."
Shaking his head, Ezra barely restrained himself from reaching out to the other man. That parody of a smile was more than he could stand to see on a face he loved so much. "Mr. Larabee, I assure you that I hold you in the same high regard as the rest of my former colleagues. Your name most assuredly deserves to be on that deed."
"I don't deserve anything like that," Chris said vehemently. "Not after what I did. I betrayed not only your trust in me but everything my own heart told me. If you're not coming back to Four Corners, then my name had better come off the deed to because I'm not going back either." He finally released his hold on Ezra's arm, only to slide his hand upwards and stroke a finger down the side of Ezra's neck.
A terrible hope bloomed in Ezra's heart, growing forth from the spark the gambler had almost managed to snuff out. He didn't want to feel it, he hated the fact that it could return so powerfully, so quickly, all with a mere touch of Chris's hand. He knew he should brush that hand away and step back, separate himself from the maddening touch and the ridiculous dreams of his heart, but he stood motionless, held captive by the lightest brush of skin over skin and the hope growing within.
Chris licked his lips in a gesture of pure nervousness, but his gaze never wavered from Ezra's. "If you're not returning to Four Corners, than neither am I. It won't be a home to me any longer if you're not there. When I heard that story those damned liars told, it was like all my worst nightmares had come true. Every fear, every doubt was all of a sudden real and tearing apart my hopes for the future. I could feel myself losing everything I'd planned for the future." The smile lost some of its pain and became warmer. "I'd begun building dreams in my heart, dreams of life with love and laughter." He raised his finger to stroke it down the line of Ezra's jaw. "Dreams of life with you." He lowered his arm back down to his side. "I've got a helluva way of showing it, and for that I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to you, but I love you, Ezra. God help me, but I love you with everything that I am." The gunslinger bowed his head in a clear gesture of waiting and submission.
It was all up to Ezra now.
Chris clenched his hands so tightly he knew his palms would likely bleed from the pressure of his fingernails. The wait was killing him, but he was determined not to move or say a thing. He'd lost the right to try to push Ezra in any way. All he could do was what he had - lay his heart bare and wait for Ezra's reaction. Ezra would be within his rights to hit him and knock him on his ass, to curse him and order him out of his life. He didn't know what he'd do with himself it that happened, but he swore that he'd abide by Ezra's decision and do nothing more to hurt him. The only plan he had for that eventuality was to follow the urge to hunt down Laura and Samuel, whatever they might be calling themselves, and make them pay for the pain they had caused.
His nerves stretched as the silence did and he prepared for rejection, braced himself for the need to hide the depth of his devastation. His pain was brought on entirely by his own stupidity and he had no right to expect anything else.
When warm hands settled hesitantly on his shoulders Chris was so surprised that he flinched. He looked up quickly, fearing what he would see but needing to know. He met Ezra's gaze squarely and felt relief course through his so strongly he almost staggered. He didn't see any of the things that he had feared so much: there was no rage or hatred in Ezra's eyes, no mocking sneer distorting the lines of his mouth. Ezra looked frightened and hopeful, but there was no anger or rejection in his expression.
"You've got to be sure about this," Ezra said quietly. "This can't be a game, a way to convince me to stay so you won't feel guilty about my going. If this is something that is going to change for you, a course to which you aren't going to be able to hold, then you must tell me now."
Chris raised his hands and gently covered Ezra's with his own. "I swear to you I'm sure, Ezra. This isn't a game. I want you to come back to Four Corners more than I want anything else, but that's because I love you." He knew that Ezra needed to hear the words, needed them to be spoken aloud to be sure they were real and weigh the truth of them for himself. He let the words pour out, knowing that if he slowed down or thought about them he'd freeze up. "I didn't realize how important you were to my life until I thought you weren't going to be a part of it any more. Losing you made me think about what you really mean to me, what I really want. I want you, Ez. I love you and I was a fool and all I want is your forgiveness and for you to love me." He stopped abruptly, the words leaving him as quickly as they had come. Words were never his gift and he'd never felt that lack more than now. All he could do now was stare into Ezra's eyes and wait and hope.
The change in Ezra was amazing. It was as though a mask had fallen away from his face, allowing his features to be clearly seen for the first time. His face relaxed almost imperceptibly as though he no longer had to strain to hold a certain expression in place. The greatest change took place in his eyes, however. Those green eyes that Chris found so alluring were changed. They were still the same dark color but now there was life in them, life beyond the shallow glints that Ezra usually allowed to show. Love shone within them, love and hope in greater amounts than Chris had ever thought he'd see directed toward himself. He could finally read Ezra and fully saw all the love he'd ever dreamed he'd glimpsed from the corner of his eyes while watching the gambler in Four Corners.
He could also see all the hurt he'd caused Ezra. The sight of the pain lurking in Ezra's eyes finally broke the paralysis that gripped him. He slid his hands off of Ezra's, down and around to the gambler's waist. He pulled Ezra close, cradling the warm body against his as he pressed his lips to his ear. "Never again, Ezra. I swear to you that you'll never hurt again, not because of me and not because of anyone else. I love you. Hear me and believe me: I love you and I'm going to do whatever it takes to make up for everything I've done." Greatly daring, he brushed a kiss over Ezra's cheek.
Ezra remained completely motionless in Chris's arms for a moment. He inhaled deeply and then released all that air and with it went the last remaining traces of the tension that had gripped him. He leaned back and Chris let him, loosening his embrace but not breaking it so that Ezra remained in the circle of his arms.
Green eyes met and held Chris's gaze. Ezra licked his lips even as a small smile touched the corners of his mouth. "I hear you. I want to believe you." He leaned forward and touched his lips to Chris's in a brief kiss. "I love you, Chris."
Hearing Ezra call him by his name made it real. Ezra wouldn't have indulged in that familiarity if he hadn't truly meant it. Made bold by the joy that surged through him, he pulled Ezra tight against himself once more. Ezra fit perfectly into his arms, warm and solid and firm against him. Chris angled for another kiss and Ezra met him eagerly, lips parting to allow Chris's questing tongue to sweep past and explore the wet warmth of his mouth. It wasn't nearly enough. Chris tried to get even closer and Ezra only encouraged him, clever hands roaming restlessly over the gunslinger's back and binding them even closer together.
Suddenly, Ezra jerked away and clapped a hand to the back of his head. Chris looked over the gambler's shoulder and watched as Delia spread her hands in a gesture of innocence. "What? Poor Mr. Tanner had been clearing his throat for almost two minutes. Someone had to get your attention."
Ezra made no move to step farther away from Chris. "You might have raised your voice and avoided the violence," he objected, but there was no real heat in his scowl. "Mr. Tanner? Was there something you needed?"
Chris knew he wasn't blushing. He didn't blush. He hoped. He'd forgotten that they'd had an audience. Delia was smiling at them, as was Vin. JD was blushing furiously and Doyle had his head tilted to the side as though he was regarding them even though his eyes were closed.
Vin cleared his throat again. "Just wanted to be sure that both of y'all knew that you weren't alone." He cocked his head to the side. "Does this mean that you'll be coming back with us, Ez?"
Chris couldn't help holding his breath. Ezra hadn't agreed to that. Chris would go where wherever Ezra went, but he wanted to return to Four Corners. It wasn't the home he'd imagined himself having, but then Ezra wasn't the person he'd imagine himself being with, either. As unexpected as it was, though, he found that he wanted to have that future very badly.
Ezra turned to more fully face the other men from Four Corners, leaning back a little against Chris as he did so. "I do believe I'll be returning with you, Mr. Tanner. It seems my business in Four Corners was not so finished as I had previously believed."
Vin nodded in satisfaction. "Good. It's real good to hear that."
Cheeks still flushed, JD nodded enthusiastically. "It is. Things weren't right without you there, Ezra. I'm real glad you changed your mind."
Ezra nodded, then glanced back at Chris. "As am I, Mr. Dunne, I do assure you."
Chris found his gaze straying to Doyle. The blind man looked enormously satisfied and not at all surprised. Doyle reached out with one hand at the same time as Delia reached back for him. As their hands linked, Delia stared at Chris challengingly. Chris got the message immediately. If he ever lost his mind and did something to drive Ezra away, neither of these people would be giving him a second chance. Wrapping his arms around Ezra, Chris met Delia's gaze evenly. He was never going to need a second chance.
Delia's stare melted into a pleased smile. She took a step forward and patted his cheek. "You'll do," she said. One fingernail scraped his cheek and he flinched away, more from the pure steel glinting in her gaze than the slight pain. "Just don't make me change my mind." A bright smile and she was back at her husband's side.
Rubbing at his cheek, Chris focused his attention back on Ezra. The green-eyed man smiled up at him and made no move to offer any excuse for his friends' behavior. Ezra still looked tired, but the smile on his face was real enough and there was life in his eyes instead of the blank flatness they had previously revealed. Chris was willing to put up with teasing from anyone if it meant Ezra would smile at him like that again.
Ezra's expression became more serious and he leaned forward and kissed Chris gently, a caress of promise and caring. Chris wrapped him in his arms once more.
This man was worth anything.
Ezra dropped his saddle bags near the door. Delia would no doubt scold him for it later, but the visit just wouldn't be complete without a final scolding so he was more than willing to risk it. He stepped out onto the porch and squinted into the morning sunlight.
"Most people start a journey in the beginning of the morning instead of waiting until it's almost over." Doyle recrossed his legs at the ankles, his feet propped up on the railing that bordered the porch as he lounged in a chair.
Ezra grinned and leaned back against the railing. "I am making a major concession by rising before noon, as you well know. Asking any more of me would be cruelly inhumane."
Doyle laughed gently. "Asking any more of you would be an exercise in futility." He stretched contentedly in the sunlight. "You're sure?" His voice was quiet, calm.
Ezra twisted around, looking over the land of the Eye. He liked it here, enjoyed the sight of gently rolling land and the feeling of peace he found whenever he visited. The ranch would always be special to him, but it wasn't home. Not if Chris wasn't there. "I'm sure," he said, turning to look back at Doyle.
"He hurt you. It was bad enough to make you run." The blind man didn't raise his voice and there was no judgement in his tone.
"He'll hurt me again." Ezra shrugged helplessly. "And I no doubt will hurt him in turn." That was how love worked. Once a person had another's heart, they could lift him to the heights of joy or sink him so deep into despair that escape seemed impossible. There was no way avoid the hurt; all he could do was remember that the love was more than worth the work. If he could see Chris look at him with that heat in his eyes, he was willing to face anything.
Deliberately shaking himself out of the solemn mood, he smiled a little. "Besides, I plan on making him pay for it. Revenge can be very sweet."
Doyle nodded. "I am happy for you, friend. You deserve a little happiness." He grinned in return. "And you deserve a little revenge."
"I just wish I could exact some from Laura and Samuel." Ezra sighed. "At least now I know that they won't be able to drive me away from Four Corners again."
"Justice will catch up with them soon," Doyle said. "Go back home, Ezra."
Home. The word brought the smile back to Ezra's face. It was time to go home. He pushed away from the railing to stand firmly on his feet. Out of habit, he reached out toward Doyle to take his hand. Embarrassment just beginning to rise, he started to draw back but before he could completely withdraw, Doyle reached out and took his hand in a firm grasp.
"Be well," Doyle said. "Be happy, Ezra. It's time."
Ezra squeezed his hand in wordless answer. He was saved from having to grope for words by Delia's arrival. She held out her arms and he embraced her, holding her close. "Thank you," he murmured.
"Anytime," she replied. Stepping away, she mock-glared at him. "Don't wait so long to come back and visit us."
"I won't," he promised. He bent down and kissed her cheek. He owed them so much; he wasn't going to let himself go so long without seeing them again. As he moved away from Cordelia, movement from the stables caught his attention. JD and Vin were each leading their horses and Chris was leading both his own mount and Chaucer out of the building. It was time to go.
It was time to go home.
Grinning, Ezra ducked back inside the house and grabbed his saddle bags, swinging them easily over his shoulder before exiting the porch. He settled them onto Chaucer and then leaned in for a quick kiss of thanks for Chris. He swung up into the saddle and smiled at Doyle and Delia. "Thank you," he repeated.
Doyle rose to his feet and nodded. "When you're riding home, you might want to stop over in Grawton. I've always found it to be a most...pleasing place to visit."
The men from Four Corners said good-bye to Doyle and Delia and thanked them for their hospitality. Ezra led them away from the Seeing Eye. It was easier to leave then he had expected; for the first time, he truly had a place to go.
Ezra found that he didn't remember much of the territory through which they rode. He'd been too lost in his own head to pay any attention to it while heading for the Eye. He, Chris, JD and Vin moved at a more leisurely pace and he was able to see where he had been. Not that the scenery mattered all that much. No matter how picturesque it might be, it couldn't hold his interest like the man who rode so dedicatedly beside him. As glad as he was of JD and Vin's company, it was Chris who held his attention. The days it took them to travel back to Four Corners were put to good use: he and Chris slowly became reacquainted. They spoke quietly as they rode, growing easy in each other's company once more.
In the late afternoon of the third day they came to the town of Grawton. As they rode down the main street, Ezra looked longingly at the hotel. A bath would be most welcome; the dust felt thick on his skin.
Apparently Chris caught his look. The blond man reigned in his mount in front of the large building. "What do you say we make this an early night?"
Vin and JD agreed readily and Ezra was soon ensconced in a table in the hotel's dining room, freshly washed and wearing clean clothes. He sighed in pure pleasure and pulled out a deck of card, raising his eyebrow at Chris. "Could I interest you in a game?"
Chris grinned at him. "What stakes?"
Ezra bit back a naughty reply. Time enough for that when they were alone and he could be sure Chris would accept his terms. "No stakes. I need to remain in practice."
Nodding his assent, Chris accepted the cards dealt to him and Vin and JD joined in the game quickly, all falling easily into familiar patterns from Four Corners. After they'd played a few hands, a man ambled over to their table. Ezra recognized him by nature rather than by face: he was the local law. He no doubt wanted to assure himself that the four strangers weren't going to fleece his townspeople by cheating at cards. A few reassuring words and a smile and Ezra would be able to put him at ease. He'd had quite a bit of practice over the years.
The man paused a few steps away from the table. "Afternoon. Thought I'd stop by and introduce myself. I'm Daniel Oliver. Sheriff."
Ezra rose immediately and held out his hand. "I appreciate that, Sheriff. My name's Ezra Standish and these gentlemen are Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, and Sheriff Dunne."
Oliver looked at JD with interest. "Where are you from?"
"Four Corners. We're on our way back now." JD motioned toward a chair. "Would you like to join us? We haven't been hearing much news lately and I'd appreciate any you could pass on."
Shaking his head, Oliver declined. "I can't. I've got two prisoners I need to keep an eye on. I was taking a fast break from listening to them complain." He paused then leaned forward consideringly. "You might have come across them; they came from the direction of Four Corners. A man and a woman; a couple of con artists. They almost talked the local preacher out of the fund he's been gathering for a new church roof."
Ezra sat up. Man and woman? "What are their names?"
"They're calling themselves Stephen and Lisa Ballard, but I doubt those names are real."
Ezra started to lean back in his chair. This was going to require contemplation. He never got a chance to begin to gather his thoughts. Chris stood up so fast he nearly knocked his chair over. "Where are they?"
Oliver cocked his head to the side. "I guess you have heard of them."
Ezra raised a hand in a calming gesture. "They caused some trouble in Four Corners."
"Some trouble?" Chris stared at him, incredulity written across his features. "How can you say that?"
"Because it's over. Do sit down, Chris." Chris stared at him mutinously, but slowly returned to his chair. Ezra relaxed once more. He needed a moment to think. He too felt the urge for revenge but he wasn't going to act. Not just yet. Doyle had told him to come to Grawton, and Doyle didn't believe in vengeance. The Irishman trusted Fate to deal out justice to those who deserved it, so he wouldn't have sent Ezra there to seek out his own retribution. He carefully gathered up the cards that lay scattered across the table. "We will go see them," he decided. "See them," he stressed, looking at Chris. "Nothing more."
Chris said nothing, but he allowed Ezra to lead the way over to the jail. Ezra was grateful for the gunslinger's trust in him, as grateful as he was for his support. He wouldn't have been able to face the combined scorn and triumph of Laura and Samuel without Chris by his side. The fact that Vin and JD were willing to stand by him only helped.
Oliver opened the door to jail and stepped inside. "Y'all have some visitors," he drawled, standing aside to allow the men from Four Corners to enter.
Laura and Samuel were in separate cells, seated on beds that lined the row of bars between them. Laura rose to her feet as soon she saw Ezra. "What are you doing here?" she demanded, her face twisted with fury.
"I heard you were in town and I couldn't quite resist the chance to see you." Ezra couldn't help but allow some of the pleasure he felt to seep through. He'd spent so much time running from them and had nearly lost the one true home he'd finally found to their lies. Finally, finally they were the ones to be punished.
Laura's gaze slid past him to discover Chris standing just behind him, then on to JD and Vin. She stepped forward and grasped the bars in front of her. "You managed to weasel your back into their good graces?" She shook her head. "It won't do you any good. They know what kind of man you are now. It will only take a little while for you to prove it to them and then you'll be gone again, thrown out like the garbage you are."
Chris moved forward until he was shoulder to shoulder with Ezra. "We already know what kind of man he is. That's why we wouldn't let him leave town when you tried to force him out."
Vin reached out and laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "He's a friend that we're not willing to lose. Especially not to lies like yours."
Stephen turned his back on Ezra, shoulders taunt with fury. Laura refused to look away, glaring steadily at him. Ezra met her glare with a cool look of equanimity. He considered and discarded several final comments he could make to them, but in the end he decided to keep his silence. There was nothing left to say to either of them. He nodded his head to Sheriff Oliver then exited the small room.
As he stepped out onto the street, Chris was right by his side. "Are you all right?"
Ezra smiled into Chris's eyes. "I am. Let them go, Chris. Justice is going to be served, if not by your hands. They are out of our lives and they won't be back to trouble us again."
"Not if they know what's good for them," Chris agreed darkly. The anger in his eyes faded as he looked down at Ezra, replaced by a softness that warmed the gambler to the core. He could read so much in Chris's eyes when the other man allowed him to. At that moment he could see all the love he'd never believed he'd ever find.
Ezra leaned against Chris for a brief moment, staring down the street in the direction of Four Corners. He knew it was impossible, but he wished for a glimpse of the familiar dusty buildings of the small town's streets. He wanted to be home, wanted to be back in Four Corners with the friends he so highly esteemed and the man he'd come to need so much. "We'll ride out early tomorrow," he decided, looking back at Chris. "It's time we were back home."
Chris's grin was like the sun coming up and it was all the answer Ezra needed.
crossover characters from Angel
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